“The Captains of Thor — What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro”

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The Captains of Thor: What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro
(A Book in Serialized Form.
 Eight Chapters Posted. Free to Read)  

Author’s Note/Prefacecropped-el-faro.jpg:  

Thank you sincerely for your support and for your catches and critiques.  This very much is a first draft, and you have my apologies for typo errors and conflicting fonts. Layout, design and copy editing are not my first level skills. A refined version should be posted soon.

If you see errors in the writing, in the conclusions, in the balance, please let me know through the “comments section.” (If you’d prefer not to make the post public,  let me know.)  My respect for the “other side of the story” is solid and my intent here is to find solutions, not scandals. If I am missing a part, or butchering fact or tone, or neglecting point of view, please let me know at robert.frump@gmail.com

One other note: In response to a few questions, there are no “made up quotes” here.  The “bridge” conversations are based on all-too-real recordings.

About the series:

Serializations of books and novels were popular in the 19th Century with Dickens and others publishing chapter-by-chapter before they were finished.  The practice is alive and well in modern times. My friend and former colleague Mark Bowden published the heart of “Black Hawk Down” as a series in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’m going to take my own humble shot at such an undertaking here, with a book-length non-fiction narrative about the SS El Faro. I’ll endeavor to post at least one chapter per month and with luck finish a book-length account of the tragedy and its aftermath by the end of the calendar year. 

A few notes: This is an examination of a tragedy that has been well-researched and investigated — heroically so at times — by the United States Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. Three very well-done books have been published.  All of these efforts produced detailed recommendations and observations and all are publicly available. I commend them to you. 

My effort touches on the broad sweep and events of the tragedy and investigation but if you want the detailed story of the final voyage of the ship, you’re better off with the other books.  My main goal here is to show how the SS El Faro fit into a larger system and culture — one that I have been covering off and on as a journalist and author for 38 years.  

It’s this system, I feel, that will result in another SS El Faro some day unless it is reformed. 

Another note on style.  My preference in non-fiction is “narrative.”  In other words whenever I can, I tell a story and show what is happening, I prefer that to “telling” the reader because I think “showing” is more readily absorbed.  Humans learn through stories. Story telling rather than a lecture better illustrates the emotions at play here, as well as the moods, culture and vibe of the ship and the industry.  

 And with that, enough “telling.”  With luck, we’ll be done by year’s end.

And, oh, if you’d like to speed the plow, so to speak, keep me in caffeine.  

Buy me a cup of coffee to keep this series perking.

Caffeine helps. The faster I write, the faster the series gets published. You’ll see the full work published here sooner than later. Anything that doesn’t go to caffeine goes into research, network costs and getting the word out. ——The Author


The Captains of Thor
What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro?

By Robert R. Frump

Chapter One:  No World Elsewhere Works This Way

5:00 AM
Oct. 1, 2015
Due East of the Crooked Islands
North Wall of Hurricane Joaquin
Bridge of the SS El Faro

Gentle giant, one of the funnier guys onboard, Frank Hamm hunches over the small wheel of the big ship, winces, grunts, pumps his legs.

All on the bridge feel those muscles now, the little ones deep in thighs and calves, unused, strained as they counter the heavy sway, surge, roll, pitch and yaw of the SS El Faro.

No world elsewhere works this way: Ships in big seas manifest six distinct degrees of motion and the SS El Faro, a steel beast bigger than two football fields, now lumbers in heavy waters with the slow-motion, multi-directional, drunken rolls of a petulant mechanical bull.

Danielle Randolph, the second mate, throws a laugh and sharp smile toward Hamm.

“You’re getting a leg work out!  Feeling those thighs burn?”

She chuckles. Wired on coffee, working weird night shifts, tamped down with ZzzQuil to sleep in the day, Randolph is one-third Hamm’s size. “Five foot nothing” her mom says.

She is another funny person on board. Has a barbed wire wit. There are times, though, boy, more and more of them now, she seems to say:  you have to laugh or you’ll cry.

It’s not a gender thing. None of that. Peers look up to her. For 15 years, she’s cut her way.  She’s liked, respected. The chatter during long watches tells you. No one snickers when she leaves the bridge. She’s one of them. She’s earned it.

One nickname? The “swell whisperer.” This because she so sweetly kisses the tons-heavy ship through huge swells of the ocean. “I can feel it…” she says, then snaps her fingers. It is like that, she says, as if the wave is saying in just that moment, “This way!”

Now, though she thinks, now for sure, this storm, this is enough — enough of the very old ships run in the US trades, and enough of Captain Michael Davidson too, who is now on the bridge.

At last.

She cuts Davidson some side eye. Earlier, she tells him it will come to this — the El Faro getting pounded by Hurricane Joaquin.  They are on a milk run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico but between them is Hurricane Joaquin.  She tells him they’ll run into the storm.  He ignores her, the jerk.

Still, there is this voice in her head.  This guy runs ships in Alaska – some of the toughest waters worldwide.

“We’re going to be far enough south and we’re not going to hit this thing,” Davidson tells her. “It’s going to get a little rougher, but these ships can take it.”

She buys it. Or says she does.

“Yeah,” Randolph says. “They’re built for Alaska.”

She’s not the only one to call Davidson on his plan, then second guess the call.   

Jeremie Riehm doubts Davidson too. Earlier the third mate phones down to the captain’s quarters.  Their course? Joaquin’s path? They seem to cross, Riehm says on the internal phone.   We’re, uh, heading right into it, sir.

Hold steady, Davidson tells Riehm and the third mate turns on his bridge to the helmsman and says almost as if he is in a Shakespearian tragedy, turned, speaking to the audience.

“I don’t know. I’m not going to second guess somebody. The guy’s been through a lot worse than this. He’s been sailing for a long, long time– he did it up in Alaska.”


It is the pedigree and standard for the captain.  And for the ship.  The crew judges both solid, bona fide. Both man and ship have faced the towering waves in the Gulf of Alaska trade.  Riehm and Randolph haven’t.

This same awe is captured in a phrase posted on an El Faro web comment page.  The post gives Alaskan masters both a compliment and a critique. An elegiac troll writes:


“I’ve seen you, you Captains of Thor! I see you hammering full speed through those waves in Alaska for Tote when you would be a lot better off waiting for the weather to settle as I do and never am late.”

Captains of Thor? Who wouldn’t like the title? The god of thunder and storms?  Protector of mankind? An ultimate hammer of authority?

For sure, the name is a match with a ship captain’s power.  A master has absolute authority on board a ship. The captain is the local god, and has been for centuries. The captain is Thor and when the captain swings the hammer, the world of the ship shakes and salutes.

Davidson buys into most of that heritage.  But the implied recklessness of the blogger?  It’s out of character He is a cautious captain, he believes.  A planner. A prepper.

Case in point. Three years earlier, he limps out of Baltimore with a ship he mistrusts. He feels the steering is faulty and because he is a captain, he can drop the hammer and does. The ship goes nowhere without tugboats in support. He orders two tugs to stand by. Such is a captain’s power.

But the company gets the bill and fires him. His circa $200,000 a year pay day is cut in half.  His mortgage on a 4,000 square foot home isn’t. Nor the college tuition bills for his two daughters. Nor payments on the BMW.

In short, you can act with principle. You can swing that hammer.  But the company can still fire you and the nut still is due on the American dream.    

He struggles as a third mate at half-pay, and spends the next three years working his way back to where he is now — a captain. A “master” in the parlance of the trade.

And what he learns in those three years? You must be cautious. You must be cautious about safety.  But also about offending your company.  This is the dilemma of a modern day Thor.  You are a Captain of Thor.  On paper. By tradition of the sea.  By all shipboard authority, you make the decisions on board the ship.

But to “catch a ship” — to get hired — you need the company.  So you best know when to swing that hammer and when to just hold it. You best think about that, boy, if you’re going to carry the load.

He knows this. He stays humble. But on this trip, for a moment anyway, Davidson’s bravado goes Full Thor.  The license that sea captains carry perhaps invites bravado:  Master – Oceans Unlimited.  It’s an authority, a charter that makes James Bond seem a slacker. 

On the bridge, with the chief mate, early in the voyage, Davidson makes fun of the idea of diverting around Hurricane Joaquin.  This is what a green fearful captain would do, he says. Davidson is a veteran. He knows better. This is why he hopes Tote Maritime, the owner, his boss, will give him a new ship, not pass him over for one of the younger guys. This is his value proposition to the company.

“You can’t run…every single weather pattern,” he says, “not for a forty knot wind.”

His point:  You can’t panic at every high wind.   

“Now that would be the action for some guy that’s never been anywhere else…”

And then Davidson imitates a green, scared captain with a panicked frantic, girlie girl squealy voice.

“Oh my god– oh my god!”

Experience and resolve is what Davidson brings to the operation. That’s his value-added.  Why he stands out from the younger captains. A little rough water isn’t reason to lose time.

You’re cautious before you just add a full day to a container ship’s run.  You’re mindful of the commercial concerns.

You’re mindful too of safety.  At some point, you realize you may push too hard.  In order to “make time,” you may place yourself in peril.    

As Davidson now seems to understand.

He’s come to the bridge from his cabin. And it may be that a tumbler turns in a lock right now and opens a new and horrible view for him.

“It sounds so much worse up here,” says Davidson at 5:17 a.m. “When you get down below it’s just a lullaby.”

“Yeah,” a crewman says.

Still, the captain is calm. Almost always he is. He is fit at fifty-three, good looking, strong chin, great hair.  If LL Bean had pop-up pages, Davidson would rise straight from them in Maine Hunting Shoes and a plaid shirt and even smile.  There is this one shot of him with his wife and two daughters and his arms around all three. He beams with love and pride.

He sees Hamm flexing his legs now and moves a tall stool-like chair toward him. All the officers now tend to Hamm – the helmsman with his hand on the ship’s future.

It is a ludicrously small wheel — like a riding lawn mower’s — and Hamm is huge.  It is a comic scene — like a big Shriner crammed in a toy car — and no one laughs.

“How you doin’ Hamm?” the captain asks.

“You want a cup of coffee?”

Hamm says he would.  Yes. That would be nice.

Captain Davidson says, “We’re slowing down.  You want the chair?”

“Yeah, yeah, sir,” Hamm replies.

Hamm takes the chair.  He’s tense.  That’s not his style. He’s a laid back guy. Makes mix tapes for the crew.  Dotes on his three grandkids.  He is a man of god. That’s been a strength, he thinks. His faith has made him a happy man.  Helps him be good with the kids.

He watches cartoons with the youngest ones. They go old-school. Popeye, Looney Tunes. His favorite? The big old goofy dog Scooby Do. Cracks him up. The dog means to say “Oh-oh.”  But it always comes out “r-uh oh.”

And that about sums up their position now on the SS El Faro. “R-uh oh” and then some. And then some more.  And more.

Outside: Ineffable.

No world elsewhere works this way. No force gathers such mass so fast then conjures fists of pewter waves to smash down man-made matter.

Elsewhere, no beast-sized ship shrinks to the size of an ant in an hour, then is swirled hither and fro by mounds of water as if a seed pod in a drain wash.

Still, the El Faro is game. She seems fit. She fights. She floats.  American steel buoys her.  American steam powers her.  Two forces – water pushing up against solid hull, steam pushing the ship forward – will save the day. Pedal to metal, if she holds together, she’ll simply outrun Joaquin.

It is 5:43 a.m. in the morning when the radio intercom from below crackles out:

“We got a prrroooblem,” the voice says. “Three hold, ok?”

Not okay.  Not close to okay. She’s not holding together. The steel envelope is seeping. Buoyancy now is at play.  There is flooding. It worsens. Life worsens. Quickly. Seconds, minutes, then an hour pass, each moment worsening deep within the ship.

Outside now: Mad Hurricane Joaquin sings through the wire strutting of the ship, blasts pellets of water and spray into the windows.  Joaquin gropes at the containers stacked high on the deck, blows up waves, tears too at the top decks, loosens straps, slaps at ropes, bolts, locks, hatches, scuttles.    

Below, somewhere, the water is a sneak. The ocean steals through the ship. No one is sure how. The SS El Faro takes it on. Water outside that pushes the ship up now is inside and weights her down — and then leans the old girl to one side

This leads to that. The officers, and the engineers below, fight the ship — seek stability, maneuver this way, counterbalance against list, pump and dump tanks. They still have steam! And steerage.

But the list is steep then steeper.  Oil sumps slant and run dry. They lose the engine. Steering now is gone.  She wallows.

They all have plans still.

Davidson dreams of a new ship. The girls off to college. He and Teresa will visit them. They’ll drive through Maine in autumn.  He’ll be off soon. He’ll be home.

For Hamm, all god’s world has been good to him.  He loves life.  The family?  The kids?  All god’s doing.  He is so thankful.  He has seen the world.  Once, he spotted a stranded fisherman from the bridge, saved the men’s life. God’s work there too.

Randolph? She thinks of work on an oil rig. Maybe law school. She’s so tough on board, but at home she’s got a closet of 1950’s vintage and likes to glam up. Her calico cat is named Spot. There have been guys, but this life, these rhythms. It’s hard. It’s not that though.  She just wants out. All her life, she wanted this and now it’s so bad, she just wants out. She needs a new dream.

In real time, desperate calls are made. Alarms armed. Abandon ship sounds. Crew and officers alike run for rafts. Hamm, Davidson and Randolph are alone on the bridge. She promises them she’ll get life jackets.  She promises, then darts down from the bridge, moves in a near fall-forward parkour-like descent down steel stairs.

On the bridge: just Davidson and Hamm now.

El Faro wallows. She tilts hard, listing. Hamm slides down and slams the wall – which is now his floor.

The deck of the bridge is an inclined plane. He looks up to where Davidson stands, holding on, just feet from escape to the deck. Hamm tries to move up. Can’t. Slides back down.

“Cap!” Hamm says. “Cap!”

And Davidson says, “Come on, Hamm. Gotta move. You gotta get up.”

“Okay,” Hamm says. “Help me!”

“You gotta get to safety, Hamm,” the cap says.

“You’re going to leave me!” Hamm shouts back.

I’m not leaving you! Let’s go!”

“I can’t! I’m a goner.” 

“No, you’re not!” Davidson shouts.

Captain Davidson stands like that, balances at the very top of the bridge, looks down at Hamm below, then looks again out to the deck and the escape route

Stop the scene here and ask the inevitable:

How had it come to this?    How had a Captain of Thor come to this place?  This crossroads at longitude 23.52°N, latitude 74.02°W? A few clicks east of The Crooked Islands? To this decision? These options? This choice?

Two government studies, one heroic undersea salvage operation, an impossible technical restoration of audio logs, three well-researched, well-done, published books, gavel-to-gavel streaming of the inquiries all have laid down ten thousand known facts.   

Combined, the reports, books and coverage are about as good an account of the SS El Faro as modern minds, science and technology can compile.  The wreck of the SS El Faro may be the most meticulously investigated and reported merchant marine wreck in history.

Every cross-current is recorded.  Every movement of the ship over the past five years is tracked.

Mistakes were made.  Mortal errors.  Davidson, Tote Marine, the Coast Guard. The American Bureau of Shipping.  The weather boys and girls. The deck officers. There is blame.  Abundant blame.

What’s more to add?

This: Beyond those reports of the El Faro’s modern history, lurk larger, forces, some new, some ancient.  They move this odd world of the merchant mariner — social forces of custom and culture, habit and hearsay, policies and politics.  Economics too.


No world elsewhere works this way.  No modern world at least.

And in this world, it can be said for sure, there were more forces than Captain Davidson pushing the hull of the El Faro away from her berthing as she made her last voyage — forces that the Coast Guard investigators and the National Transportation Safety Board don’t have in their investigative charter.   

So here there are two sea stories to tell.

One tale is composed of the short, choppy waves of contemporary time. It tells how the mortals of the SS El Faro came to sail her into the teeth of Hurricane Joaquin, all bound by the rules of free will and professional responsibility.  This particular tale will begin in May 2015 just when Davidson was sure he was catching a break — and a brand new ship.

The other tale deals with the large swells and tides of time, mounded up over decades, even centuries, by customs and culture, and how these forces helped propel the Captains of Thor to sail on rust buckets into maelstroms.

And that longer story begins in the era that launched the modern merchant marine, when America was a shiny new dime twinkling in the prosperous sun of the mid-Twentieth Century.

Picture two merchant marine officers, cold and near lifeless, huddled in a life raft off Cape Cod in February 1952.   

One rope from the raft leads to safety and a Coast Guard cutter.  Another rope leads to their sinking ship — which will drag them to certain death.

Only one line will snap.

They are frozen but their eyes are coals of fire as these two sons of Thor watch the ropes stretch and strain, throwing off water as the braids tighten then begin to fray and break.


Chapter Two: The Frankenships

8:30 a.m.
February 19,1952
Near the Bow Section of the SS Fort Mercer,
Off Cape Cod Near Chatham

Willard Fahrner and Vince Guilden poked at the clasp knife on the floor of their life raft, as if the knife were a puck and their frozen hands and arms hockey sticks of dead wood.  So cold were their fingers that they could not grasp the tool, pick it up and cut a simple single line, an act which would assure their survival.

El Faro candlelight vigil

This then was the cruel end to a maritime tale of horror — a story that might have been penned by Melville, then edited by Poe.    The two men in the raft, with their fellow officers and crew, had struggled for hours against a monster of a storm and huge seas.  There were nine of them at the start. One-by-one, five disappeared until only four were left.   

Two of those four were rescued and now only Fahrner and Guilden, the second and third mates respectively, sat in the numbing cold. Their heads swiveled from the “good line” that led to the US Coast Guard rescue ship. Then they would pivot and look to the “bad line” stretched and strained now, tied to their sinking ship.  The one certainty here was that if the good line broke, the bad line would drag them to their deaths.

The men had sailed on the SS Fort Mercer, a leftover World War II T-2 type tanker carrying oil from the Gulf Coast to New England. Near Chatham, off the coast of Cape Cod, the ship split neatly in two during a storm.  A second ship called the SS Pendleton – the Fort Mercer’s twin — split in two just a few miles away at about the same time.

For the Pendleton, the US Coast Guard was mounting one of its most spectacular rescues.  Nearby, Boatswain Bernie Webber and his fellow coasties would save the crew of the Pendleton and be enshrined in Coast Guard history — and in a 2017 Hollywood version of the rescue, The Finest Hours.  

But the officers on the Fort Mercer had not been so fortunate.  They were trapped in the bow half of the Fort Mercer and were tossed about by huge waves. All nine huddled at first on the bridge, but they were forced out by crashing waves.  One man slipped into the sea. Three more miscued on a Coast Guard message — jumped and were swept away. Another jumped for a rescue boat only to be swept under.

Two more men were rescued by a daring Coast Guardsman steering a small boat in impossible seas.  But that boat was battered now and Fahrner and Guilden were stranded.  In a desperate last “Hail Mary,” the Coast Guard shot a line over to the Fort Mercer then floated a raft to Fahrner and Guilden.  They swam through frozen seas, forty foot waves in fifty mile an hour winds and somehow managed to mount the life raft walls.

And now here they were. Frozen and exhausted. No one saw this end coming.  It had seemed simple. Make it to the raft. Cut the line to the Fort Mercer. Get reeled into the rescue ship, the Yakutat.

On the bridge of the Yakutat, Commander Joseph W. Naab, architect of the Fort Mercer bow rescue, was stumped.   He could see the bow sinking more and more into the Atlantic. What was his next step?

  Wilfred Bleakley, a young ensign on the bridge of the Yakutat just eight months out of the Coast Guard Academy, could not stand the tension and broke rank.

“You have no choice, Captain!” he bleated. “Back down and hope the line breaks on the other side of the raft.”

Naab pretty much had that one figured out. Then again, he had to admit it. The kid was right. Back down, Naab ordered.

The big cutter began moving away. The lines on both sides of the raft tightened, stretching, throwing off water and straining.

Then there was a snap, a crack as if a large caliber rifle had been fired. Naab and the others aboard the Yakutat peered out.

The raft jerked suddenly and jolted toward the cutter. The line to the bow of the Fort Mercer snapped in two, shot toward the bow, and then slacked in the water. They were saved!

Immediately, the Coast Guard hauled the line. In about ten minutes they had pulled the raft alongside the Yakutat. Guilden and Fahrner were stretched out in the boat, exhausted.

At that moment, someone yelled, “There she goes!”

The survivors, still in the raft, looked over at the bow section. The half-ship turned over and sank.   Then the survivors swiveled their frozen necks and looked up at the Coast Guard.

Ensign Bleakley would always remember the look on their faces—a look of wonder, gratefulness, exhaustion, and amazement.


Such was the glory of life at sea as a Coast Guardsman.  Next day, the papers nationwide were alive with the triumph of two great rescues.  Nearly all the men of the Pendleton were saved and the rear part of the Fort Mercer, where the bulk of the crew took refuge, was salvaged with no deaths at all.

The rescue was a high point of Coast Guard history.  But what had the deaths of the men won for the cause of maritime reform?

Little as it turned out. The investigations that followed the sinkings of the two ships formed history — though not in a particularly glorious manner.    

The two formal Marine Board of Investigation inquiries acknowledged everyone knew long before the Pendleton and Fort Mercer crack-ups that the war-time T-2 type of ships involved here had been structurally unsafe.

The ships’ steel was flawed at a molecular level and could not be fixed.  The vessels would be expected to split in two but steel belts wrapped around them provided a sort of “limp home” mode — if the weather was not too bad — and the Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping had allowed the Pendleton and Fort Mercer to sail knowing all of these factors.

Clearly, the limp home mode had not worked for the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton.  So what would the Marine Board do?

In a sense, the future of maritime safety was — like the Fort Mercer life raft – tethered between two forces and fates.

One line of Marine Board reasoning was tied to the best instincts of safety-minded officers.  Another line attached to commercial concerns and kicked the can of maritime safety far down the road.

Here, the line “broke bad.”

The answer, said the boards, was not to scrap the ships. The boards said that if even more steel belts were added to the ships, this would allow the crew and officers enough time to reach safe harbor the next time a T-2 fractured and structurally imploded.They could make it to port “under some circumstances.” 

The unsaid part was that the ships would not make it home under other circumstances — such as rough seas and storms, all conditions a normal ship will routinely encounter and survive.

The short, clear message to merchant mariners was this:  “These ships are flawed and might break in two. We’re going to try to buy you some time if that happens.”

By the standards of any other form of transportation, the assumption and assignment of risk seemed incredible. What regulatory body would say that a car, plane or train was fundamentally flawed and might fall apart — but patchwork fixes and baling wire might allow the passengers time to escape harm in a crash?  Under some circumstances?

None would, of course, because those affected by planes, trains and cars were many — and they voted.

Merchant mariners?  They were few in number and had little clout and were nearly invisible to voters.

What caused such a policy?  Perhaps the war was to blame.  This would not be new.  An 1865 official inquiry into the loss ofSultana:

Recklessness, induced by the war, . . . extended its mischievous
tendencies into all branches of trade and is particularly observable
among those in or on board some classes of steamers. A large number of
boats have been used during the war as transports, tugs and freights,
these have been depreciated by long and continued use—purchased and
put on duty withhout proper examination and even without precaution
or regard to safety. This will doubtless be found among the most
prominent causes of the terrible calamities which seem to be beyond
the reach of official remedy.”

The “best case” explanation of the policy was that the Coast Guard felt the war era ships soon would be scrapped. This might have seemed reasonable at the time. Who would want to retain ships that were structurally unsafe?  Soon, modernization would wipe out the old vessels.  Owners needed more efficient, larger ships to compete.

And they would have the resources for this because they were protected by The Jones Act — a “cabotage” provision — that reserved all coastal trade  to US officers and crews, on ships built in American yards.  This assured that the country would have a strong merchant marine in case of war.  And the protected trades made certain that owners could afford to replace the old ships with brand new state-of-the art vessels.

The opposite occurred.

The Jones Act, designed to make the maritime sector strong, backfired. Badly.

Few new ships were being built. Prices at American yards were prohibitively high — three times the cost at a foreign yard. Few economic forces pushed the war era ships to the scrap yard. Protected rates showed a profit no matter how inefficient the vessel.  And an old 1850 law strictly limited damages a plaintiff could claim for lost seamen and officers.

And so the war era ships sailed on.

Not only did they stay at sea, as they approached the end of their regular life, often they were converted  — “jumbo-ized” or “stretched”  — so they could carry even more cargo in configurations and rigging often not suited to their original design.

“Frankenships” is what some called them — vessels that ought to have died but were unnaturally held together with steel stitches and belts, then given an artificial extension of life.

This was no small ripple in the maritime world.  These lax standards of Coast Guard safety inspections, joined with the trend to frankenships, would create a great rolling wave of toxic safety culture.  This wave, energized by regulators and operators alike,  would crash into more than a dozen ships in the decade following the tanker disasters.

The Coast Guard pledge to keep a close eye on T-2s and the other war surplus ships?

By 1962, ten of the old ships had sunk with no major cautions coming from the Coast Guard.  In fact, the stern of the SS Fort Mercer, salvaged from the 1952 sinking, sank a second time after her stern half had been welded to a new bow.


Then in 1963, came a tragedy that could not be ignored. A modified T-2 approved by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping as seaworthy simply disappeared, as did its 39 officers and crew.

There were no heroic rescues.  No sign of the crew or the ship really.  Only a few remains were found—a lifejacket with a bit of a crewman’s shirt tied to it. A Coast Guard investigation noted simply:

“Numerous tears on the life jackets indicated attack by predatory fish.”

The Marine Sulphur Queen was the ship’s name and a valiant Marine Board of Investigation here would rally and draw a line, seeking to reclaim the Coast Guard’s regulatory honor.    This inquiry in a sense was a showdown of the best safety instincts of the Coast Guard and the worst trends of protecting commercial rationalizations. 

Here, the board said decisively that the T-2 structural soundness was in question and that most all new conversions of the old ships should stop.  There would be no more frankenships allowed.

The board makes its recommendations but the Commandant must enforce them.

And the Commandant rejected the recommendation.  No generalizations could be made about the ships as a class, he said, and the conversions could continue on a case-by-case basis.  The Coast Guard would keep a watchful eye. The Coast Guard would make sure these were safe ships — not frankenships. Careful inspections would make the difference.

At about the same time, however, a federal district court judge was concluding that the Coast Guard was a mere rubber stamp.  It had hardly inspected the vessels at all in the cases before the judge. And by this time, 15 T-2 casualties were noted.

But the justice’s decision applied only to one civil suit — not the American merchant marine fleet and the fleet sailed on unaffected by reform.

After the Marine Sulphur Queen board was shot down by the Commandant, the case for reform faded and a new era of lax inspection and standards spanned decades.  Each year, ships got older and they ran a greater risk not just of fracturing from “dirty steel” in the hull, but from the dangers of corrosive wear on pipes, tubes, gaskets, hatch covers, scuttles, boilers, condensers and lube lines.

The official Coast Guard and ABS posture was that age had no affect on the seaworthiness of a ship.  But when hatches failed against high seas, when pumps gave out, when engines stopped during a storm, age made a big difference.   The policy was geared to commerce, not safety.

Admiral Clyde T. Lusk, an officer who fought for safety measures in the Coast Guard, looked back at the era and assessed the situation in this manner.  In his quest for safety, Lusk found himself with no allies. The executive branch wanted the ships to sail. Courts assessed puny damages that allowed the ships to sail.  The Jones Act assured the ships would sail. Congress wanted the ships to sail.  The shipbuilders wanted the ships to sail.  The ship operators wanted the ships to sail.  And even the maritime unions would complain if the Coast Guard held up a ship for safety reasons.  Safe or not, they wanted the ship to sail.

The American Merchant Marine was declining, Lusk said, and any close Coast Guard attention to defects was seen as unpatriotic and antibusiness.

“Whenever we found serious things wrong with a ship, there
were tremendous, tremendous domestic pressures to keep the ship
going,” Lusk said. “The owners, the unions, and sometimes con-
gressmen too, all would say we were putting them at a great com-
petitive disadvantage. It was a very complex system in which we
made our decisions.

“So we adopted a policy that economics would determine when
a ship would be scrapped,” he said. “We had a policy that a ship
would keep on sailing until an owner said it was not economically
viable anymore. We did not just say a ship could no longer sail; we
hoped the owner had the good sense to stop sailing it when the eco-
nomics were no longer there.”

The problem with the policy was that some owners always saw
value in even the oldest and rustiest ships. Samuel Plimsoll found the
same situation in the nineteenth century when, in an age of steel
ships powered by steam, wooden ships of sail continued to be used
in the tramp trades.  

The problem with the policy was that some owners always saw value in even the oldest and rustiest ships. Samuel Plimsoll found the
same situation in the nineteenth century when, in an age of steel
ships powered by steam, wooden ships of sail continued to be used
in the tramp trades. Always, some owners were willing to take a
chance on marginal, cast-off vessels. And even major lines succumbed to the “one more trip” ethos.

And so it was that in 1983 a first cousin of the Marine Sulphur Queen, the SS Marine Electric, an expanded T-2 tanker, sailed into a blizzard at an age nearly twice the lifespan of most ships and capsized in a February storm.  cropped-unknown-2.jpeg

The tragedy might have been a replay of the Marine Sulphur Queen in 1963, but for three reasons.

Their names were Robert Cusick, Eugene Kelley and Thomas Dewey.  They survived the wreck of the Marine Electric.

What they did then changed everything.

Chapter Three: Pillow Talk

April 2015
Davidson Residence
Windham, Maine 

In pillow talk, on cold Spring nights in Maine, Michael Davidson told Teresa, his wife, that this might all turn out well after all. 

Or at least it was looking better – far better than three years ago when he parted ways with Crowley Maritime and went from being a sea captain, the master of a huge ocean going vessel, to third mate. 

Big new ships were coming down the ways.  The “Marlin Class” they called them.  Captain Davidson might just get one.  He was interviewing. 

These new ships were beautiful, powered by natural gas, and equipped with state-of-the-art navigation. The first vessel, Isla Bella, had just been launched in April 2015, and a second vessel, the Perla del Caribe, was scheduled for August. 

His new company, Tote Maritime, owned by Seattle-based Saltchuk, seemed visionary at a time when American ship lines and ship builders were moribund and cynical, supported largely by the Jones Act. A full third of the 100 or so American flag ships were older than a ship’s normal lifetime of twenty years and few new ships were planned. Many existed only because the Jones Act required American coastal shippers to use US-flagged ships. 

Contrast that philosophy with Tote and Saltchuk. The best view of it? For them, the Jones Act seemed a shining light and these companies beacons of hope. 

Just last year, the privately owned firm was named one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute. And this year, the company was delivering on those new Marlin Class containerships, thanks in part to a $300 million plus loan guarantee from the US Maritime Administration. 

More than 600 workers at the General Dynamics yard in San Diego crowded around in February 2014 as a “steel cutting” ceremony – no flimsy ribbons in a shipyard please – marked the beginning of the construction.  

“These ships, will be the most advanced, environmentally progressive vessels of their kind,” US Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation said, “but they also represent $350 million in U.S. investment, 600 American shipyard jobs, and the bright future of the indispensable domestic maritime industry.”

So there were jobs in shipyards, new ships, and jobs for Davidson and his crew.  And the United States of America had a trained corps of professional merchant mariners. 

Even if he got turned down for the new ships, Captain Davidson told Teresa he was in good shape.  He was captain now of one of the old ships, but a good ship. 

The “El Faro” she was called – “the lighthouse” is the way that translates into English.  

And like the Isla Bella and the Perla del Caribe – the “beautiful island” and the “pearl of the Caribbean” – the El Faro once was young and beautiful — her own technological marvel.

“She’s built for Alaska,” Davidson would say, and she had sailed those tough seas. 


Truth was though, always: she was built for speed.

Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania, was famous for its fast ships and in 1975 produced the El Faro — then called the Puerto Rican.  This was an era where speed counted more than economy, before fuel prices went through the roof. 

And it was an era of robust shipyard innovation and government partnering.  Sun Ship had created the Glomar Explorer for Howard Hughes and the CIA, and also refitted the Manhattan tanker as an ice breaker – the first commerical ship ever to make a true Northwest Passage.

Some federal funding helped build the El Faro type of ship and Sun asked, “What do you really need?”  Military sealift replied:


They wanted the “roll-on roll-off” merchant ship available in an emergency to handle tanks and armor headed to war, and to move those weapons fast.

And Sun and the government reached a deal.   If the ship prototype topped out at 25.8 knots, the yard got a ten percent bonus.  It was deemed unlikely. The smart money was not on Sun.

But Sun built the prototype of the ship with the “thin hull” and lines of a cruise liner.  Then Sun dropped in the maritime-equivalent of a “hemi engine” used in muscle cars. Steam engines were out of date the day OPEC raised oil prices, but, holy god, steam engines were fast.  You could almost see the inner “hot rodder” smiles of the engineering team at Sun as they devised how exactly they would fit an oversized steam engine into the prototype that would beget the El Faro.   

Then they tricked out the ship with one other accessory — a new feature that would help with stability.  To keep the raked, sleek lines of the ship upright, the yard created a super heavy ballast by using QCM — heavy lead ore pellets from the Quebec Cartier Mining company dropped into the bottom of the ship.

“We figured out that mixing that with the electrostatic precipitate waste from power plant effluent would make the mix even heavier,” a Sun Ship executive recalled.

On trials, the prototype ship hit 26.35 knots – more than thirty miles per hour.  

This was faster than a white tail deer. Incredible. Yet undeniable and repeatable trial after trial.  The yard banked the bonus. The ship sailed. Based on the prototype, Sun began building commercial ships based on the prototype, including the El Faro vessel. 

She could look chubby viewed straight on when loaded.

From the air? At the right angle? You could see her lines and the graceful curve of her hull. 

She was sleek, fast, stable.  Inside the ship, ramps and special exhaust vents allowed the longshoremen to drive trucks and cars efficiently onto the vessel in what amounted to a parking lot nearly three football fields in length.  

She was lengthened once in the early 1990’s but kept those sleek lines and when Captain John Hearn stepped on board her in 2003, he was to develop an emotional attachment for the ship and the family-owned company that operated her.  His devotion was such that when Hearn heard a bad word uttered about the Saltchuk family of companies, he set the bad mouthers straight right away.     

The El Faro was called The Northern Lights then and good god, Hearn thought it all marvelous. The way the whole system was supposed to work. And did. The Jones Act protected American shipping for a reason.  So America could have a strong defense.  So America could ship weapons and ammo in a time of need. 

And there he was, February 2003, master of a sleek fast ship designed to carry trucks and tanks, His cargo? A vast load of Humvees and a security detail of 12 armed US Marines along for the ride from San Diego to Kuwait. 

They arrived amid a small invading armada of ships.  Right off the bat:  a SCUD missile scooted over the horizon and landed very close.  No warning! Hearn hit the alarms. 

Even the cook wore a hazmat outfit with mask at the ready should another missile come. They expected a gas attack at any moment and the peril was real. 

Hearn wrote in his log: 

0940: Chemical alert — Once again, no siren alerts the port. A car drives down the dock blasting three short honks on the horn, repeatedly. The signal is recognized, the driver is wearing a gas mask. Then the port sirens sound. Personnel in all areas calmly drop their tools, don their gas masks and move to shelters. 

Cargo is almost completely discharged. The ship is scheduled to depart at 1700. It is amazing that the ship’s crew has adapted to wartime conditions within 48 hours. There are no complaints of fatigue though the overworked crew has not slept peacefully for days. There are no complaints of danger though the attacks have been steady. Not one man has suggested not leaving the port until the area is secured and deemed safe.  

And the service was rewarded.  The ship received military honors and once she was sent back to regular duty in the Seattle trades, the Saltchuk family and company honored the ship, the crew and the captain. 

“It was stirring,” Hearn recalled. “The family, all the executives, they just drove onto the ship, up the ramp and personally got out and thanked us.  There were no dry eyes.”

And for years, Hearn had little but scorn for those who took shots at the Saltchuk operation – family and companies. 

“You heard a lot of crap,” Hearn said.  “Mike Garvey built the company and then turned it over to his three daughters, Denise, Nicole and Michele and their husbands are the executives who run a lot of the place…

“People would say, ‘Oh those guys just married into the family,’ and I’d set them straight:  Old man Garvey ran their asses off for ten years before they got to sharpen a pencil at that place and they earned every bit of it.

“Then some crew would joke about the women and call them spoiled rich girls, and I’d let them have it,” Hearn said.  “To meet them, to see them at benefits, they were ordinary people, warm hearted, well meaning, like PTA members, with no hint of being spoiled or pampered or anything other than the responsible community members you would want to see…”

And Hearn would pause then, telling the story from his home in Lewes, Delaware, an old pilot’s town at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. 

“And I don’t know what happened,” Hearn would say. And he’d pause and then swallow down his words. 

It would be a moment before he could finish the story about Tote and the El Faro.  It was as if he were talking about a best friend who had died.  And in a sense, perhaps he was. He had loved the company, loved the ship, loved the whole tribe and trade. Now all of them were gone for him. 

 “I just don’t think they really knew what kind of people they had hired to run the company,” he said. “I can’t believe the family really understood what was happening.”


                                    —— ———

As for Captain Davidson, he knew all he needed to know: he had a good job and a good ship.  Yes, she was old.  Yes, you had to keep patching her.  

Still, now in his fifties, with two college-aged daughters and a mortgage, he faced the same slow agony many land-based executives shared:

Would the company lay him off? Demote him? Fire him?  Would he be back “on the beach?” Were his prime earning years over?  Would he have to start over again somewhere else as third mate? 

Then too there was a creeping toxicity you could sense seeping into the culture. Not everyone would get the new ships.  A “Hunger Games” attitude seemed to be forming and was it just imagination, or were some of the chief mates waging an end run around some of the captains?

Those worries he would not share at home.  And in pillow talk, he did not have to tell Teresa. He’d been at sea 25 years, which meant they’d been at sea for 25-years.

She knew the score, she knew the life.  That’s how mariners and spouses stayed together:  that understanding.  She’d watched him do the right thing, suffer for it, then do the right thing again and rebuild his career.    

Her respect was monumental.  Mike was careful.  Mike was smart. Mike did the right thing and still made ships work. 

Sink that old ship in the middle of the Caribbean, she would  say later. 

No worries.  

Mike would swim up on some island and call home.

Chapter Four: Vengeance of the Thors

4:15 AM,Feb.12, 1983
On board the
Marine Electric
North Atlantic sea-lanes off Virginia

Phillip Corl, Master  of the SS Marine Electric, a veteran Captain of Thor, fumbles with his life jacket as the voice of a Coast Guard rescuer crackles over the radio.

”What color are your lifeboats?” the Coast Guard voice asks. ”State the color of your lifeboats.” 

Eugene Kelly, the third mate, reaches past Corl, whose arms momentarily are snarled by the life jacket straps. 

“Orange! International orange!” Kelly yells into the mic.

A shrill whistle blows. Abandon ship! But Kelly hears a voice on his walkie-talkie — Engineer Michael Price far down below.  Do the deck officers want the engine-rooms pumps tied down? Price says he can do that. 

“Mike!” Kelly yells. “Get the hell out of there! We are going down!”

Kelly jumps down a stair flight.  His walkie-talkie tumbles in front of him. He looks up, sees Corl climbing the rail of the bridge deck.   thor statue dreamstine

Now he looks down to the scene below.  On the main deck, Chief Mate Bob Cusick is calm, commanding the crew to lower the life boat. It seems but a drill.  Cusick calms them. He is proud how they are holding rank.  Waiting to board.  Patient. Orderly. Trusting. 

Seaman Paul Dewey pays out the life boat lines, pays them out, pays them out, then reaches out, reaches out far over the rail for another line. 

The ship jerks. Dewey falls, the first into the water.  Cusick looks down, then hears “the sound of the water going out of a bathtub amplified one billion times” as the SS Marine Electric capsizes on top of them all in a bitterly cold storm off the coast of Virginia.  

Dewey finds a life raft. Cusick swims out far to a swamped lifeboat. Only Kelly finds other crew members alive.  

They gather on a single life ring in 39 degree water and 50 mph winds and Kelly bears witness to what happens to men under such circumstances.  

I came across a life ring, and there were five other people hanging on. . . .

It was the chief engineer Richard Powers; the third mate, Richard Roberts; one of the ordinary seamen, his first name is Harold – I don’t know his last name; the day man, Joe, I don’t know his last name; and it was the radio operator, Sparks Lane, and myself.

We were on the life ring.

Everybody was pretty well stunned. We sounded off so we could find out who was there. We sounded off by number and came out with six.

And then it was just talking, giving each other encouragement, that we thought daylight was coming pretty quick. Several times the chief thought we saw a ship in the distance, or saw lights in the distance when we got to the top of a wave.

The only lights I could see around me were the strobe lights of the life rings, the water lights, and I could hear people calling all the time, but I couldn’t see anybody else . . ..

And I don’t know when I started to notice that people weren’t on the life ring.

I noticed that Harold wasn’t there at one time.

And then I turned around and the day man wasn’t there.

Right after that, I called out to Rich Roberts and I asked him how he was doing. He responded that he was okay, that he was cold, he was okay.

I don’t know how long it was on the life ring before I noticed that the only ones there were the chief engineer and the radio operator.

He was stiffening up. He kept saying, “I’m cold. I’m cold. Help me.”

At that point, I noticed that the chief – the chief – when we went into the water, had his spotlight and he had been shining it up into the air all this time.

I noticed that he wasn’t shining it any more. I thought he might have lost it. So I whacked him on the back of his life jacket, and there was no response from the chief. And as I hit him, his flashlight floated away from him, and I was able to grab that, and use that as my signal.

I never looked at my watch in the water because I was afraid that I would lose my grip on the ring. So I wasn’t concerned with the time element. I kept talking to Sparks. Sparks was the last one on the ring with me.

The helicopters arrived, and it seemed like I could see them passing over me two or three times before they spotted us.

When they lowered the basket, I turned to tell Sparks that the basket was here, and Sparks wasn’t on the life ring anymore.

It was just myself. 


Unlike the Marine Sulphur Queen, three men survive the SS Marine Electric and their moving testimony eventually  and documentation of unsafe conditions seems certain to finally block the long wave of regulator laxness. l

Finally, it seemed, the Captains of Thor would have their vengeance.  They would win a battle over a system that pinned them to a cruel choice: sail unsafe ships or sail no more. 

 Indeed, the testimony of Bob Cusick and the others illustrated in great detail how Marine Transport Lines allowed the old Marine Electric to sail with holes in her hatches, holds and hull.  Cusick did what he was supposed to do as a chief mate: document deficiencies and turn them over to the Captain. His notes, carefully saved at home, documented the safety violations without doubt. 

Perhaps more importantly, the testimony of Cusick, Kelly and Dewey gave maritime tragedy faces and names. 

Samuel Plimsoll, the great maritime reformer of the nineteenth century, had explained it succinctly. “What the eye does not see, the heart does not feel. . .” 

In contemporary American, the collective eye of the media still saw little of the suffering of seamen, and the heart of the public therefore felt little.

The stories of Cusick, Dewey and Kelly changed that.

But even with the power of Kelly’s testimony, the detailed notes from Cusick, and the story of Dewey’s agonizing ordeal, the ship company had a good chance of winning this — by pinning it on the surviving Captain of Thor, Chief Mate Bob Cusick. 

Marine Transport Lines, some within the Coast Guard and even a few mariners, argued that the ultimate responsibility lay not with shoddy inspections and unseaworthy ships — but with the ship’s officers who did not “turn in” the ship owners.  The ship owners, in fact, claimed no officer ever told them the ship was unsafe. 

They sought to turn the table on Bob Cusick and blame him for not stepping forward.  The chief mate and the captain, after all, were bound to make sure they never sailed a ship that was not safe.  You can’t blame the company for not fixing problems they don’t know about and with the ship’s captain dead, Cusick as chief mate had inherited the title Captain of Thor — along with a target pinned to his heart. 

Ship operators had blamed captains for decades and the practice was enshrined in custom and culture.  For decades, the Coast Guard had bought it.  Together, the company and the Coast Guard practiced a sort of weaponized disingenuity that let them avoid responsibility while the Captains of Thor got hammered.

At one level, the Coast Guard and owners were correct. Technically, a captain or master was bound to report an unsafe ship.  But in the American merchant marine of the late 20th Century, that meant most ships would not sail, and captains would not have jobs. One survey showed that 96 percent of mariners had sailed on a ship  they considered unsafe. 

And if a ship were found to be unsafe, the Coast Guard prejudice seemed always to shade toward blaming the master, not the company. 

For example, an academic researcher named Leo Tasca examined four Marine Board of Investigation cases and their findings in the 1980’s. Then he took the same cases and analyzed how they came out in courts of law.

In each court case, the blame was placed squarely on the ship operators. Yet in the Coast Guard marine boards, the heart of clear cases against the operators was ignored — and the blame pinned on the captains.   The results were so clear-
cut,  that he concluded  the Coast Guard was “highly biased” toward owners.

What happened when a Captain of Thor actually did drop the hammer and say a ship was okay?  

Even in 21st Century cases, you got hammered  — unless you were a Captain of Thor who could afford to hammer back. 

Horizon Lines master John Loftus in 2013 had asked repeatedly that the ship operator fix valves that did not work, power boxes that burst into flames, and fuel systems that failed. When the company did not respond, he filed formal complaints with the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping stating the ship was unsafe. 

Horizon struck back. They ginned up a reason for demoting him. He had sacrificed safety concerns during a storm, the company stated.  And Loftus did what few other Captains of Thor have done.  He filed under the Seaman’s Protection Act (SPA), which prohibits retaliation against seamen who report safety violations to the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Months later, a merchant mariner working at Horizon, after Loftus had wreaked legal carnage upon the company, asked the company’s general counsel: 

“Of all the people in the merchant marine, why on earth did you have to choose Loftus if you wanted to make an example of someone?”

Captain Loftus was accustomed to litigation from his days in union politics.  Moreover, he had a personal war chest in reserve — about $200,000 — to spend on legal expenses, so the company was not going to stall and drain his resources. 

After a three-day trial, an Administrative Law Judge issued a detailed 48 page decision that vindicated Loftus.  

“Captain Loftus was the most safety conscientious Master in the entire Horizon Lines fleet,” the judge said, “with an unusually strong commitment to the safety of his vessel and crew.” 

The captain’s insistence on calling Horizon’s attention to serious safety hazards was ignored by the company, the judge said and the Captain took what everyone said was a duty of a Captain of Thor. 

“Loftus resorted to reporting safety concerns to the regulatory agencies because of Horizon’s consistent failure to correct hazardous conditions aboard the SS Trader. Loftus was clearly a thorn in Horizon’s side.”

“Horizon’s conduct was reprehensible,” the judge continued. It involved “machinations,” “smoke and mirrors,” and “fabrication” to disguise “the real reasons” for firing Loftus as Master, “namely to discipline Loftus for his protected activity.” 

So after five years of litigation, Loftus was awarded more than a million dollars in back pay and punitive damages.  

The victory was hailed as a precedent for the Seaman’s Protective Act.  

But the reality remained: Few Captains of Thor had Loftus’ resources and stubborn insistence on righting wrongs. If you called a company on its safety record, if you dropped a dime to the Coast Guard, your job was imperiled. 

And if an old unsafe ship did wreck and kill most of your crew and colleagues, the ship company would still come after you — as Marine Transport Lines was coming after Cusick.

It would take three more men — the members of a defiant and crusading Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation — to counter that. They were Captain Peter C. Lauridsen as chairman, Captain Dominic Calicchio and Lieutenant Commander E. F. Murphy.

Back in the Marine Electric era, no one knew the story of “blaming the captain” better than Captain Calicchio for he too had been  a Captain of Thor. He’d sailed for years in the merchant marine and both his brothers were masters as well. 

Moreover, he had the reputation within the Coast Guard of bucking the tide.  He ignored commercial concerns if a ship’s safety truly was at stake.  And his trial examination skills had been honed by months spent as a Coast Guard “port judge” ruling on casualties.  

As important in this case was Captain Lauridsen’s role.  For Calicchio could only question the company and joist with its attorneys if Lauridsen gave him the license. 

And he did. At one point, a conservative NTSB official tried to cut off Calicchio’s examination.  Lauridsen, told Calicchio to proceed.  “Do what you have to do, Dom.” And the marine board stood as one as Calicchio shredded company attacks on Cusick. 

At times, he ridiculed the company’s assertion that an improperly stowed anchor caused the sinking.  The anchor would actually have to fall upward for this to happen, he showed.

  The final marine board report was devastating to the company, the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping.  The company should be considered for criminal prosecution, the report said, and the Coast Guard and ABS admonished for failure to properly inspect the ship. 

Moreover, the reliance on the American Bureau of Shipping as a proxy for the Coast Guard should cease completely. Calicchio felt strongly that a private company paid a fee by the ship owner could not deliver consistently an impartial safety inspection 

The board wrote:

 The examination of U. S. merchant vessels to assure
their compliance with the applicable Federal safety statutes and
regulations be conducted and determined by knowledgable members
of a U.S. Government agency. The responsibilities for these
functions should not be delegated or entrusted to the private

The recommendation came at a time when deregulation was popular and privatizing government services a trend. The Commandant turned down the recommendation flatly. 

“The poor quality of the American Bureau of Shipping surveys in question cannot be justifiably expanded to condemn the entire system of third-party delegation,” the commandant wrote.

“What this casualty does support is the need for a more formalized oversight
program by the Coast Guard. In this regard, the issue of proper oversight of
all third-party delegations is being studied in-depth and appropriate guidance
will be published in the Marine Safety Manual.”

The ABS would remain as a “for hire” ship inspector.  We’ll just keep a close eye on it, the Commandant said. 

The Marine Electric legacy slowed the decades long trend of siding with commercial interests.  More than 70 ships were scrapped as a result of Coast Guard vigilance, led by a small but demanding group of Senior Traveling Inspectors who had received a clear  safety mandate.  The American Bureau of Shipping tightened up its act. The ship company pleaded guilty to a felony. 

And this time, the Coast Guard treated the Marine Electric as a true call to action.  Awards in Calicchio’s name were given out at the inspection training center in Yorktown, Virginia — and are to this day.  A book about the Marine Electric was assigned reading at the Coast Guard academy.  

Regardless, Calicchio rued the ABS decision. The process had been tightened but structures not changed. He predicted then that the system might would again turn bad and a big one would go down.

 For 31 years, three months, 68 days, and seven hours, Calicchio was wrong.


Even before then, advocates of strong inspections could see a deterioration in the post-Marine Electric standards as the tragedy faded in memory.  Moreover, the popularity of privatizing government was abroad in the land. And the post 9/11 world scrambled priorities for the Coast Guard — as it ought to have.

Net result over the years?  The ABS was handed more responsibility, not less. By 2015 nearly 90 percent of the merchant fleet was handled through “Alternate Compliance System” inspections — which meant essentially ABS did the inspections, not the Coast Guard.

At the same time, cutbacks decreased the Coast Guard oversight of how the ABS implemented the Coast Guard rules.  A Coast Guard liaison had been embedded with the ABS in Houston, the ABS headquarters.  The job was moved to Washington.  Then it was eliminated.

By 2015, Capt. Kyle McAvoy, the Coast Guard Chief of Commercial Vessel Compliance, was worried enough that he audited a sample of ABS inspections.

He would find that 38% of the ABS inspections were seriously flawed on series issues.  They were missing basic, often structural requirements.

Others within the Coast Guard noted that the agency had abandoned “The Ten Worst Ships” list. This was not its official name, but in effect, but the nickname made its point. The list highlighted which ships the inspectors should keep a particular watchful eye upon.   Various data went into the making of the list. Age. Casualties. Safety violations. Track record.

Landing on the list meant Coast Guard inspectors would meet the ship at its next port of call — or soon thereafter — and sort out whether it needed a detailed inspection.

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Chapter Six:  Rust Buckets 

Aboard the SS El Yunque
Sister Ship of the SS El Faro

If Captain Davidson was certain the El Faro was a strong ship, some experts in the Coast Guard were skeptical.

So it was that Tote was conducting its annual inspection of the El Yunque, the sister ship of the SS El Faro, when — big surprise!  — who should show up? The Travelers.

The Travelers were officially titled US Coast Guard Traveling Inspectors — a serious and potent force within the agency and a strong advocate for serious safety standards.

Their legacy dated back to the Marine Electric days when Travelers, given the mandate, followed their instincts and scrapped more than 70 old rust buckets.

On this day, a warm one in February,  they were there to “help” inspectors from the American Bureau of Shipping — the TOTE paid inspectors, who were the privatized version of Coast Guard inspectors.   The visit followed a study that showed nearly 40% of ABS inspections missed significant safety regulations. 

Soon, the Travelers were making music down below. Spot some corrosion? Commence percussion. Pick up your hammer and test it out.  Could you punch through the rust?  Then so could water and waves.

This was particularly true, it seemed, in the ventilation trunk chambers, a part of the system that vented out the cargo area of auto and truck fumes.  Punch-through came quickly and the Travelers wanted to test it more thoroughly. 

“This test, which was performed in a typical manner using a hammer, resulted in a hole through baffle plating that was required to be watertight,” a report later stated. 

In fact, pictures of the plating seemed to resemble the tin roof of a rusted backwoods distillery unused since Prohibition ended.  More holes than metal, it could be classed as junk if you put some work into it.

But out of nowhere came a call from the local Coast Guard sector chief:  The travelers were to stop the inspection.  Immediately.  The tests exceeded the audit by the ABS now underway.

The Senior Traveling Inspector on the spot obeyed the order but felt strongly that  that the   long-standing corrosion existed in the other trunks. 

This was no small deal.  The trunks were lower to the water than original ship designs and if the vessel experience severe rolls or listing, there was a “down flooding” risk.  Water would be scooped in through the tanks — and down into the hold.  This could happen in severe weather — a hurricane for example. 

So he made a point of asking Jacksonville to conduct  a detailed follow-up on the other trunks and make sure Hold 3’s vent was fixed.

The ABS inspectors looked at the trunks and said all was well.  Honest.  That first one was a fluke. 


So after this was discovered we looked at the port side as well and then we

sampled other trunks to verify that they were in good condition. This one that you have

pictures of is the only one that was found in this condition with regards to the corrosion.

Then on March 1, TOTE moved the El Yunque to Puget Sound, and began converting the ship back to a “ro-ro” configuration for use in Alaska and its rough seas. 

The Coast Guard inspectors would not let it go.    Puget Sound Marine Inspectors found that despite t  ABS survey and assurances, the ship was essentially a deteriorating rust bucket of bolts.  

The main deck “gauging” — measurement of the thickness of steel — was poor. The deck was in fact rusted through with wastage — and had been for a long time. Air supply vents for the holds — six of them in total — had missing gaskets, holes in the vent ducts, wasted flanges and holds in the side shell of the vent inlets. 

And on it went. TOTE was required to fix the ship — or keep it at dock.  The inspectors, particularly the Travelers, weren’t having any of it. You could run from Jacksonville; you could not hide in Puget Sound.  Not with the Travelers on your case. 

Finally, in August, six months after safety violations were first surfaced, TOTE gave up — and decided to scrap the El Yunque. 

The questions this incident raised?  Why did it take a safety-minded company like TOTE so many years to find obvious corrosion?  And how could the ABS have missed it?  If the Travelers had not been there, how long would this have carried on. 

The most serious question of all was this one: Did the SS El Faro have the same wastage in its trunk vents?  Would it be subject to down-flooding in rough seas, or with a list?  Would the ventilation shafts meant to bring in clean air dip into the sea instead and flood the ship?

The answer always would be uncertain but the Coast Guard brass thought it a fair question and comparison. Sister ships.  Same company. Same routes. Same length of service. Same ABS inspectors.  The question seemed to be why would the El Faro not have such a problem. 


The El Yunque incident was not the first when TOTE seemed to flirt with danger. 

Captain Hearn, the Lewes, Delaware, master who captained El Faro during the Iraq war, could feel the company start to shift in tone and culture when the founder passed on control of the company. 

 “After the old man left,” said Hearn, “it just all changed, it just got very big and they put it under some corporate people who … I can’t believe the family really understands what they’re like or how they are managing it….if they knew, I think it would be different…”

Hearn stayed with the successor companies. He watched as Saltchuk and the Northern Lights morphed into something he thought ungainly and then ungodly.  

Shortly before the military service, the company asked in 2002 that the Northern Lights be modified.  The ship had been lengthened once in 1992, but now the request was to add space for containers above deck.  Modern shipping runs on containers — literally the containers you see on the back of big trucks on the highways.  The Northern Lights was a “roll-on, roll-off” vessel — a ro-ro.  

Sure thing, the Coast Guard said, but this is officially a “major modification” — which means you’re going to have to meet modern standards for the ship.  

What this meant was unclear except that it would cost money.  And perhaps affect stability. 

Containers added “sail” to a ship and the “ask” was to permit the ship to drop two feet lower in the water.  The vessel had special ventilation ducts cut into the hull — the same ones the Traveler’s hammered on.   They were essential to get rid of exhaust fumes from the trucks and cars loaded onboard. They were designed to be waterproof when the ship drew 28 feet of water.  

What would happen if she drew 30-feet — two feet closer to the waves?  If the ship saw a sizeable storm and the containers caught the wind and the ship developed a list, what happened to the special ducts?  How waterproof exactly were they after 25 years?

Those were some of the question a major review would consider. 

Then there were the lifeboats.  They were old fashioned Lusitanian devices — gravity drop and not enclosed.  Much of any list to a ship and they were useless. In the twenty-first century, ships were required to have enclosed lifeboats that launched from the stern.  These were “Captain Phillips” type devices.  Tom Hanks could run one — and did in the movie.  You jumped in; you pulled a lever; hatches sealed; props whirled. You were launched, however rough the seas and propelled away from the sinking ship. 

In fact, the Marine Electric Board of Investigation had recommended that old fashioned lifeboats be replaced.  The Commandant had agreed, but existing ships like the El Faro, built eight years before the Marine Electric sank, were grandfathered — unless they underwent a major refitting. 

The company passed on a major overhaul in 2002. Too expensive with all those safety matters. Then the company asked twice in 2003.  And the Coast Guard again said the proposals comprised a major overhaul.   

Then, in 2004, the company asked for a fourth time. 

What had changed between 2002 and 2004?  

The argument.Other ships similar to the El Faro had been modified and those changes were considered “minor.”  Why not El Faro?

There may have been other factors that— if not definitive — made sure Saltchuk was heard by the government.     

Saltchuk had been a small stakes player in political donations in 1998, with only around $26,000 at stake in the world of political capital.  But by 2004, donations increased five-fold to nearly $130,000.  And the recipients of the new money — the largest — seemed carefully targeted. 

Here was Don Young, Republican congressman from Alaska.  And a member of the Committee on Transportation.  Over there across the aisle? Norm Dicks, Democrat from Washington, nicely situated on the Appropriations Committee – even better, on the subcommittee for defense. Joining in the donations was Democrat house member Neil Abercrombie, prominent on the Armed Forces Committee. 


 There was no clear link that pointed back toward these donations as a reason for the change. But in 2004, on the fourth request, the Coast Guard agreed:  The company could add the container capacity.  The ship could load so it rode two feet lower in the water. This would be only a “minor” modification with no need for the major examinations of stability and lifeboats. 

Yet all of this affected stability and safety.  Some ships — oil tankers — had “full hull” forms. Others – like sail boats and yachts — had more “fine hull” forms built for speed.  The El Faro was “yachtish,” “not squatish.”

“The fine hull form of El Faro made her a poor choice for topside containers,” said the Sun Ship engineer who oversaw the construction of the vessel in the 1970s.  The wind would catch the containers.  She would quite literally have a sail. 

But a container ship she became and at age 30 – ten years after the normal lifetime of a ship — the old girl learned a new trade.  

She loaded cars, trucks and refrigerated vans below. And above, the longshoremen stacked on racks hundreds of containers. Her service in The Jones Act trade was assured. 

But not her stability.  Had she been subject to today’s standards, she could not be built:  she’d flunk stability and damage risk tests.Studies all showed that later. 

And that was if she were brand new.

Which she was not in 2015. Not even close to it.  

 The El Faro wasn’t built for Alaska.  She was no longer built for speed.  She was built on a budget to optimize cargoes. 

Captain Hearn knew little of these specifics. It just felt bad to him that Saltchuk would perform such a nautical vivisection.  Something felt wrong. He felt something was wrong with the company but he could not put a name to it. 



The FBI could. 

On April 17, 2008, the feds came in the front doors hard at Saltchuk’s Sea Star, at Horizon Lines, and at Crowley Liner Services. They subpoenaed documents from Matson Navigation Co. and Trailer Bridge.  Most all of the big Jones Act carriers serving Puerto Rico were caught up in the white collar dragnet… 

The company, or at least the part that later was to become Tote and owned the El Faro, had engaged in a criminal conspiracy for six years, with other ship lines in one of the largest ever price-fixing schemes. 

Sea Star and Saltchuk were losing $20 million a year in 2002 according to writer Walter A. Pavlo, Jr., a specialist in white-collar crime, who reported the affair for Forbes magazine.   Orders from Sea Star headquarters were simple: turn it around, no questions asked.   

None were, and executive Peter Baci determined that what Sea Star Lines needed was a nice price increase — rates that would generate $40 million in sales and place the company into the black. So he met with the other lines and got them to agree to fixing the rates. 

Pavlo wrote that “…with this plan, SSL was a turnaround success. In 2002, SSL had lost money but in 2003 it had its first profitable year…. with other profitable years to follow.

“The attitude around the office of SSL had changed from concern about the company staying open to plans for company get-togethers and bonuses…Everyone in the ownership group was happy with the performance of the company and how Peter was managing things.”

Not so much once they saw what the feds were charging them with. Sea Star Lines pleaded guilty to felony price fixing charges and paid more than $14 million in fines.  The company later changed names to Tote Maritime, Inc., and cleaned house of most everyone connected with the old Sea Star op.  

But the rate fixing conspiracy stands as one of the worst in the history of shipping, one that cost consumers millions. Prosecutors sought and won the toughest sentence in the history of anti-trust convictions. Peake, the former president of Sea Star, now Tote, was sentenced to five years. (Years later, the company, upon receiving its ethics award, said they were the victim of a “rogue operator.”)

Hearn was a mariner, not an accountant, and while the price fixing was despicable, he was more concerned about safety issues.     

Built for Alaska? He sailed the new El Faro – many years after his Iraq deployment. He did not know what she was built for, but it was not safety. 

When he was on her bridge, he found that the ship listed-even without wind.  The containers seemed to ruin the ship’s balance.  Wind would catch “sail” on the containers and the ship would list farther.  When he gave a simple rudder command, the ship would lean. 

Worse, Hearn saw deteriorating conditions on the ship — and a sister ship, the El Morro.  He reported a hole in the El Morro that needed to be fixed in the ship’s hold.  The company said it would be fixed.  It wasn’t.  Hearn complained again and stated it affected the water tight envelope of the ship.  He was forced to go to sea with the hole unfixed — unthinkable aboard the Northern Lights. 

Slowly, a big chill set in with the company he once loved.  Routine requests for routine safety items seemed to brand him a trouble maker. Hearn would not back off.  He wasn’t one to make trouble.  He felt he was preventing trouble. 

Then, in 2013, Tote fired him.  Two deckhands were busted in Florida for smuggling cocaine. No officers were implicated.  A review of DEA records under the Freedom of Information Act, shows the officers were never suspects in the smuggling.  Moreover, Tote runs 100 percent “luggage” checks of crewmen — conducted by an outside security agency.  But Tote said Hearn ought to have prevented the smuggling. 

Hearn lawyered up. He went to arbitration.  Tote ate every accusation and lost.  But Captain Hearn – a merchant marine hero of the war — would never sail for Tote again. 



The El Yunque and the SS El Faro were not alone. Coast Guard studies would find that 38 percent of ABS inspections flunked a Coast Guard review with frequent serious oversights in applying safety codes.  


More than 38 percent of all ship inspections were faulty and missed important ship safety 

 Captain Dom Calicchio’s fears had been realized.  The recommendation from the SS Marine Electric investigation was to eliminate these private inspections and conduct them solely through the Coast Guard.  The best minds of the Coast Guard had said it plainly:  The ABS had a conflict of interest because they were paid by the ship owners.  Only government inspectors could maintain a core value of protecting the crew and public from unsafe ships.

Twenty-five years later the reverse had occurred.  The inspection system had been outsourced and now more than 90 percent of ships were enrolled in the Alternative Compliance Program.  This meant the ship operators paid ABS a sum to inspect the ships. 

How seaworthy was the El Faro in 2015?  It was hard to tell.  If the ABS inspections of the El Yunque sister ship were a guide, the El Faro was in peril, with rusted ventilator trunks all too exposed to a rough sea.

But Davidson’s dream of a new ship at a dream company was shattering. He believed he sailed on a ship “built for Alaska.” 

Truth was, based on the ABS record and the troubles of the sister ship, one could not determine whether the El Faro was even built to float. 

Certainly, she was not built for a hurricane. Not the one brewing out there near Bermuda. 

His name was Joaquin. On the web, some jokesters in the Navy took the graphic path of tropical storm Joaquin and then pasted in headshots of the actor Joaquin Phoenix at various positions along the route. 

A young clean-shaven Joaquin Phoenix marked the storm’s beginnings in the Bahamas. 

The storm-track marched north to New York City then and at various points north an ever-harrier, ever-wilder Joaquin Phoenix marked the widening storm’s passage.  

At the last, a wide-eyed Mr. Phoenix stared back from the graphic with a full-beard as Hurricane Joaquin appeared to strike Manhattan. 

This was trending on Twitter in late September as the crew of the SS El Faro in JAX prepared for the trip to San Juan. 

Chapter Seven: Imperfect  Storms

Tuesday, September 29
Blount Marine Terminal
Aboard the SS El Faro
About 8 PM
About 30 hours out from Joaquin intersect

On the day the SS El Faro departed JAX for Puerto Rico, Michael Davidson, a mortal, took one step from the gangway onto the SS El Faro. 

 At that moment he was transformed into a Captain of Thor — master and commander of all on board. Like all ship captains, he now had domain over the people and processes on the ship.  

His foe was conjured in the Atlantic the day before. 

Joaquin was born near Bermuda on September 28.  He was a rare “non-tropical” depression and might have died away quickly. Storms need warm water to gain power.  They are “heat engines.” Warmer water intensifies their cycles. Bermuda is subtropical — more Georgia than Cuba. Lukewarm waters drive lukewarm storms. 

But a strong vertical wind shear dropped like a steel wall to the north, blocked the storm and drove Joaquin south.   And as Joaquin moved south, the storm hit warmer waters. This fed the cyclonic energy and the whole system officially became a “he” — Tropical Storm Joaquin — early on September 29 at two in the morning, 18 hours before the El Faro departed Jacksonville. 

sea of thor oregon dreamstineJoaquin headed south, his engine feeding on the tropical waters. And as Joaquin headed south, the storm hit ever warmer waters.  

Hotter waters hopped up the wattage.  Just 24 hours after birth, Joaquin at 2 a.m. on September 30 grew to a full-fledged hurricane — and major weather data crunchers said again: Joaquin would turn soon and head north. 

Everyone was watching.  Even Baird, up in Maine, was texting on the phone.  The second mate could not help himself.  Leaning back on his couch, flipping around the channels, he saw there was something brewing in the Atlantic and he just wanted to give Davidson a heads up. 

Hey, did you see that storm Joaquin?

Yes, Davidson texted back. He had the storm in his sights.  Hard to miss. Everyone thought Joaquin was heading north.  On the ground there, the eastern seaboard was stampeding to grocery stories for supplies.   Whole Foods stores in the tonier parts of the Mid-Atlantic would be stripped of Fiji Water, cage-free eggs and organic goat milk by closing time.  Doubt Baird would get hit in Maine though. 

Well, if you have any doubts, you know, Baird said, you can always go the back way, take the Old Bahama Passage just as we did with Erika. Tropical Storm Erika had kicked up some big swells back in August and Baird suggested they duck down behind the string of Islands strung south from Cuba.

Copy that, Davidson said. He knew that option. He’d taken it with Erika at Baird’s advise in August. 

And as a Captain of Thor, he had that option now. 

In theory.  On paper. 

Most days the whole Thor factor made little difference with how the company might view him.  His habits ran to the careful and considered end of the spectrum. No conflicts there with the company.  Some other captains even thought he could be a bit too conservative. 

There was the matter of pilots, for example.  They came on board to help the officers navigate through the close and often treacherous waters leading from dock to the open sea.  They’d come on board, take the elevator the few stories up to the bridge, and help navigate the path to the sea. 

No elevators on Davidson’s watch.  The pilots needed to walk up the stairs.  Always.  His theory?  Transiting with a pilot could be the most treacherous part of a trip. What good was a pilot trapped inside an elevator?  Let him get his steps in. 

“Yeah, I suppose, so,” said one modern-day captain.  “Not something I’ve ever done or considered but I see his point if you really want to button up the risk.”It’s a bit excessive, in my opinion…”

Davidson kept a close eye on the weather as well.   Everyone said it seemed headed north. When he and Chief Mate  Shultz — who was a Captain of Thor and master himself — reviewed the route plan at around 6:30 a.m. on September 30, they agreed a slight southern diversion in course was wise. 

“It’s’a good little diversion — are you feeling’ comfortable with that chief mate?”

“Better,” Shultz said. “Yes sir.”

As for the Old Bahama Channel route, or some other longer diversion? The chief mate discounts it. 

“Yeah like I said the other option is drastic,” he tells Captain Davidson. 

“Yeah, it doesn’t warrant it,” Davidson said. 

The chief mate replies, “Not for, uh….(what we have here.)”

 “You can’t run every single weather pattern,” Davidson replies. 

“Not for a forty knot wind,” Shultz agrees. 

“Now that would be the action for some guy that’s never been anywhere else,” Davidson says and then adds later:


“For now, we’ll just sit on the bank and fish for trout.” 

In other words, they’d wait until they saw how the storm played out. 


If the storm broke badly?  They could always divert to the Old Bahama Channel. Or what was known as the Northeast Providence Channel — and from there find the Old Bahama. 

Plan C? Around Crooked Island, farther south, there was another passage to the Old Bahama, and that would be their escape hatch if they needed one.  That would be Captain Davidson’s last chance to drop the hammer and divert. 

The question of whether Davidson would swing the hammer of Thor seemed doubtful to  

Second mate Danielle Randolph. She and Davidson were examining the course at one point, with an eye on the storm. Davidson seemed more concerned about the return trip, after the storm had passed but the heavy chop had not. Randolph seemed peripherally skeptical. m282_ft_elfaro_v2_b_silo-9b125199-4985-4485-9626-a581d4fc436f

 “I hope we get to take the Old Bahama Channel back,” the captain says.  He had written the company an email around 1 p.m. September 30, asking if he could do that.  He neglects to add that the subject line to the company had a subject line labeled “Question.”  Still Randolph picks up on the nuance immediately and has to be thinking:

A Captain of Thor is….hoping?  We’re taking it on the back trip, not this trip?

“Does the company want permission now?” she asks. 

“Management,” Davidson says. 

 And Randolph presses it.  The captain rules at sea, right?

“Because it used to be just we’re doing it,” she says.  “you people are sitting in your

 office behind a desk and we’re out here-we’re doing it, yeah.”

The “used to be” referencing centuries of tradition as well as modern day written policy at Tote. 

 “Well, I’m extending that professional courtesy because it does add a hundred and sixty nautical miles…,” he replied. 

And Randolph counters, “Yeah but it also saves on the ship’s stress — the stress of the ship.”

  Davidson replies, “That’s why you know I just said hey you know-I would like to take this going northbound.” 

The message to management is in Davidson’s words, “‘I’ll wait for your reply.’” 

“ I don’t think they’ll say no.” Davidson said.   “I gave them a good reason why  …”
What brings a Captain of Thor to fear consequences for a safe passage decision?  What intimidates him from following his instincts and logic?  Why does he feel he needs permission to divert?

Here, an “imperfect storm” of factors swirled about, joined and all bore down.  

Commercial costs comprise one part of this storm.  Add in capital costs and the daily cost of idling a ship could run into the tens of thousands — a concern for any captain. 

“You delay just a little bit,” said a shipping executive, “and man you’d be surprised how quickly that spirals through your schedule and projected revenue and costs.  Miss just one day, it’s a big deal by itself but it also affects future deliveries and contracts.

“A big weather delay can snake through your schedule for multiple voyages, having everything being off to the major annoyance of your customers,” he continued. “In addition, costs are increased as you often end up doing terminal work during higher cost periods to begin with and often encounter overtime charges to get vessel out quicker.

“On top of that, for priority customers you will sometimes take their containers to a competitor (if they are more on schedule), incurring additional costs doing that.  The point is, being off schedule can have significant adverse revenue and costs effects on a container operator and everyone at the company (and presumably on the vessel) is aware of that.”

Then there was this.  He and the company had strained the bounds of how long one should work at sea.  

He had signed on with the El Faro on May 5, 2015, and, given a normal ten week rotation, left the ship July 14. 

But his relief captain walked off the ship only three weeks later, and Davidson returned. Now he was scheduled to stay until December. 

So by late September, with just a month break in his 13 hour days, Davidson had worked four months — was scheduled to work three more, for a total of seven months with just one break.  As he took the helm on September 29, he was running on only five hours sleep. 

And the months he had spent on board were very close to occupational torture.  First he was all but offered a job.  Then it was yanked away.  Then he was told he was doing something wrong — but company officials would not tell him what. 

One of his own chief mates was said to have betrayed him and the fleet was wrought with the Hunger Games virus.  One part of management was actively discussing placing a spy on his ship to “rat him out.”   Who was a snitch? And what was a “snitchable event?” That he had turned away a drunken seaman?  But not dried him out?

Moreover, he’d seen what happened to Captain Kearn when you bucked Tote.  He was aware of the Captain Loftus at Horizon — and them persecuting him.  And of course, the Crowley firing — “Captain Davidson resigned,” Crawley said officially — still weighed on his shoulders. 

You could swing the hammer as a Captain of Thor, but the examples ship lines had made of captains was crystal clear. Crowley fired him.  Tote fired Kearn.  Horizon fired Loftus.

The one ray of light in all of this, he thought, was the ship.  He and Randolph are talking about the El Yunque, the sister ship of the SS Elf Faro, on the bridge after they leave JAX.  The captain of the El Yunque had emailed Davidson at about 10 a.m. on September 30. 

“Do you know if the El Yunque took old Bahama?” says Randolph.  She is referring to the sheltered passage the El Faro traversed a month earlier.  Islands shield ships from wind there. 

“She did not,” Davidson said. 

“Really?” Randolph says in surprise. 

  “They put some turns on her and they’re staying ahead of her,” Davidson said.  The El Faro and the El Yunque were built for speed and the El Yunque had just outrun the storm. 

“Oh okay,” says Randolph. “So they did get ahead. That’s good.”

 “Said he saw a hundred gust, to a hundred knots,” Davidson said. The El Yunque captain sailed through 115 mph winds. 

And that became another part of Davidson’s “imperfect storm” of pressures:  The El Yunque was in the same storm. Same type of shape.  The El Yunque had made it. Why, Tote might ask, did Davidson divert the ship when El Yunque did not?


“We’re going in to it,” Randolph said. 

“We’re going to be far enough south,” Davidson assures her. “We’re not going to hit the thing.  Watch.  These ships can take it.”

“Yeah,” Randolph said. “They’re built for Alaska. 

“Exactly,” said Davidson. 


Only they weren’t.  The question was whether either ship should be at sea.  

The El Yunque’s ventilation trunks were riddled with corrosion, as were seals and gaskets.  Was that a proxy for the El Faro?  A sister ship under similar conditions with the same company? The Coast Guard Commandant — generally not a foe of commercial interests — thought it a fair compare.   

The main deck “gauging” — measurement of the thickness of steel — was poor. The deck was in fact rusted through with wastage — and had been for a long time. Air supply vents for the holds — six of them in total — had missing gaskets, holes in the vent ducts, wasted flanges and holes in the side shell of the vent inlets. 

Moreover, the earlier ship modifications on the El Faro and El Yunque had given “sail” to the ship with rows of container stacks on deck, and lowered the vessel two feet in the water as well.  The ventilation trunking — designed to be closed and watertight while the ship was underway — always was run with the trunk fire damper open, assuring flooding if the ships dipped too far. 

Fleet-wide, there was worse news later.  Traveling Inspectors, in a crackdown on ABS inspected ships, found hundreds of fittings that were unsafe and need to be replaced or repaired. The hatches, gaskets, fittings, and vents of the old ships were pretty much all in question in their view. 

 Of this Davidson was unaware — or seemed to be.  As were most captains in the trade — many of whom compared the El Faro to an old 1970s muscle car, a bit rusty perhaps but strong as American steel could be. 

All of these matters affected Davidson.  The swirl of this  imperfect storm of fear and uncertainty coupled with the misplaced confidence in the ship, was enough to put any Captain of Thor in a twist. He and the ship were in downright peril. 


This was not evident to him. And his comprehension was not helped by technology.

Joaquin appeared on his terminal as a clear entity on the Bon Voyage system — a display of weather data that he could animate if he wanted to. 

Applied Weather Technology supplied service to the El Faro based on National Weather Service data.  The National Weather Service data is three hours old when it enters the company’s computers. The Bon Voyage system crunches it for nine hours and then relays it to ships like the El Faro. 

So a normal up to date forecast is 12 hours old — which all parties knew and accepted. 

But on this trip, the Bon Voyage system blew it.  By mistake, they sent an old forecast — not a new forecast — to Captain Davidson.     

So when he plotted his initial course, Captain Davidson’s main source of weather information was 21 hours. 

And worse, the National Weather Service later would say its initial Joaquin estimates were more than 500 miles off placing the path too far to the north too soon.  

 Early forecast models for Joaquin did not accurately predict how the storm would react in moderate wind shear  — where the shear is neither light nor strong.  Models showed the shear would be too strong for significant development and that Joaquin would remain weak, moving to the west and northwest.

Instead, Joaquin strengthened. He  moved southwest,  Around three to five days out, official track errors from the National Hurricane Center more than doubled the official errors for the previous 5-year period.


All that aside, you had to ask.  What was he even doing there?

“Look, once you get into the bull fight arena, it does you little good to complain, ‘No one told me the bull would come from that direction,’” said Michael W. Carr, a former Coast Guard officer who captained ships and taught marine weather courses.  “The important thing is: Don’t get into the bull fight arena.”

Meanwhile, Tote seemed unaware of the storm.  No one was on alert on land.  No warnings of caution were sent. No one checked in, said to Davidson, do what you need to do, captain.  Safety is prime here. 


With all of that, this was undeniable:

Davidson had to know the fierce storm was a threat.  The captain of the El Yunque had warned him. His on-leave second mate had warned him.  And yet, and yet… he was heading toward the storm. 

Without doubt, he believed that he was a careful, veteran mariner — and that this was his “value proposition” to the company. It is what distinguished him from younger chief mates elbowing him out of the way for the new ships. 

He believed too that he knew very rough weather from his days in Alaska and that he had a strong fast ship that would easily beat the hurricane and ride through rough water and winds. 

And in his state of mind, it is very probable that the very careful Michael Davidson was following his own logic, which psychologists and others call “confirmation bias.” The concept was simple: If you want something, confirming data is taken seriously, while “disconfirming” data is treated with skepticism.

In ancient times, Thucydides described the phenomenon. 

For it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.

Author Upton Sinclair updated it for the 20th Century:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Yale Professor Charles Perrow applied it specifically to maritime captains:

…we construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process the information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it.

Warren Buffet took into the 21st Century

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact. 

Perhaps this arm chair, pop psychology approach to the behavior of the captain is too facile.

Still, in the next several hours, Davidson would check most of the boxes for confirmation bias.  He rejected data and the warnings of his own officers, and continued to steer toward Joaquin. 

He knowingly entered the bullpen.  And the bull was coming. 

Weather alerts warned around 6:30 p.m. that Joaquin was producing seas of up to 30 feet and still heading toward the Bahamas. A hurricane warning advised that mariners “use extreme caution.”

“Wow,” Davidson said. But he took no action. The ship was just north of Great Abaco Island — close to the entrance to the Northeast Providence Channel, one hurricane escape plan for the ship. 

Are we going to turn around, a seaman asked the captain after the advisory?

“No, no, no. We’re not gonna turn around, we’re not gonna turn around,” Davidson said.

Then the  ship drew east of the first escape channel a little before 7 p.m. on September 30 and the National Hurricane Center upped the ante as El Faro passed east of Great Abaco Island.  Joaquin now had sustained winds of 75 knots, gusting to 90 knots, the center reported. 


At that point, Davidson and the chief mate huddled together and discussed altering course.  They settled on a new heading that would take them farther south — between the islands of San Salvador and Rum Cay.

Could we extend that and go farther south and sail below Samana City, the chief mate asked?

Keep it simple for the officers on watch, the captain replied. Let’s just have one course change.

A little before 8 p.m., a seaman asks the captain whether the storm will get worse.  Davidson says not to worry.  They had picked a new route that would get them away from Joaquin. 

He then told the third mate he would be awake most of the night. Call me if you need to.  Davidson then left for his stateroom.    

At that time, Joaquin was a category 3 Hurricane with winds estimated at 100 knots, still heading south.  

 It was about five after 11 on the night of September 30 when Third Mate Jeremie Riehm first senses the captain is making a mistake.  

Riehm tells his helmsman Jack Jackson: “Well right now, we got nowhere to go…Later on there’s a gap in the chart, you can head south, you know, (and) it’s a good idea to have an alternate– you should have a backup route””

 Jack Jackson, says of the weather, well some captain would have taken one look at that and (went) “we’re gunna go the Old Bahama Channel.” “we’re not we’re not takin’ any chances (here).”

Riehm decides to calls Davidson in his quarters below. 

Can the cap check out the new weather report? he asks. And, hey, maybe they should tweak the course, get them a bit farther away from the storm?

“The current forecast has max winds a hundred miles an hour at the center,” the third mate says. “…and if I’m looking at this right…it’s advancing toward our trackline…and puts us real close to it.” 

He promises the cap more details. Rings off. 

A few moments later he is back on the line with the captain:  

“So– at oh–four hundred (4 a.m.) we’ll be twenty-two miles from the center. with uh max one hundred wind gusts to one-twenty and strengthening so– the option that we do have– umm from what I can

see– is at oh-two hundred (2 a.m.) we could head south. and that would open it up some.. so I mean of course I’d want you to verify what I’m seeing.  

Riehms hangs up and turns to ___ Jackson and says the cap 

thinks they’ll be okay, that they’ll be in the southwest quadrant of the hurricane and the winds will speed their passage south away from the hurricane. 

“Nantucket sleigh ride,” AB Jackson  says. 

Riehm replies, “I trust what he’s saying– it’s just being twenty miles away from hundred knot winds — this doesn’t even sound right.

Jackson agrees.I got a feeling. I’m going to get my poopy suit and my life jacket.— laid out..(His immersion suit.)”

“We don’t have any options here,” we got nowhere to go,” Riehms says. .

 “Jesus man,” Jackson says. “Don’t tell me anymore.”

Then the helmsman breaks the tension with an Elmer Fudd voice, “ Th-th-t- th-th these are b-b-b-b-b big waaaves.

“Jesus– it’s a hurricane,” Jackson says.




Second Mate Danielle Randolph is on track with Rhiem questioning the captain.  Around 3 p.m. on September 30, she yawns back the zzZquill, knocks back the coffee, points at a ship on the  radar screen.  

“They’re trying to get away from the storm too,” she says.

“Nobody in their right mind would be driving into it,” her helmsman says.  

“We are!” she says, laughs, then adds on a sarcastic: “Yaaay.”

She’s back on the early morning shift — the watch that follows Rheim and they compare notes — and doubts. 

She points at a chart and says: “Our best chance is catch the Old Bahama Channel here. we’ve got umm– he’s not gunna like this. comin’ through here.”

Riehm says, “ I’ll go look at the Bahama Channel charts. That would be the only thing we’ve got …”

“That should work, she says and then adds:

“Unless this damn storm goes further south. Can’t win:  Every time we come farther south the storm keeps trying to follow us.”

Riehm leaves and they plow through the waves for the next hour or so. The weather is worsening. 

At around 1:15 a.m., Randolph’s helmsman cautions her, “You can’t pound your way through them waves– break the ship in half.”

Randolph replies: “(I know) we’re going to hurry and get out of it. That’s what El Yunque did. Went full speed ahead.

“Well I knooow what they did,” her helmsman replies. “But they knew,  they knew they was going to get out of it. 

“We going  in to it,” he adds. 

“That’s the thing I mean yeah we’re going  into it,” Randolph replies. “But it’s not going to last long. We’ll be out of it pretty quick.” 

Does she believe that for real? They get weather reports that show them headed toward the hurricane. 

“ I’m going to give the captain a call and see if he wants to come up and (look at it),” she says. 

Captain, she says, I just wanted to see if we could go south.. through the Old Bahama Channel.

“We’ll be meeting the storm,” she explains. “It isn’t lookin’ good right now.”

She gives him a track line  and course that will take them through the Bahama Channels but he says no. Hold steady. 

“He said to run it,” Randolph says to the helmsman. Then adds in a dramatic, loud voice with laughter:

“Hold on to your ass!”

A few moments later, the helmsman feels the ship lean, 

“Wind heel,” he says. 

At around 345 on the morning of October 1, the chief mate relieves the second mate. She notes only that she called the captain. There is no discussion of her doubts or the Bahama Channel. 

The chief mate takes over and notes, “Hard to tell which way the wind is blowing.”

“I assume that we’re heeling to starboard,” he says, “It  must be blowing port to starboard.” 

He is right about that but wrong to be looking for threats that are just outside the ship.  Already, they are inside. 

Chapter Eight: Suspects on the El Faro Express

Inside the SS El Faro structure and systems
East of Crooked Island
0700 hours

The chief mate is right about the “heel” of the ship, but slow to suspect what is causing it — and what is pushing the ship evermore toward danger. 

True, the El Faro is where she is near Joaquin because of the decisions made by the officers — and the decisions not made by Tote. 

But now there are inanimate objects and structures that come in to play — all suspects in what is to happen soon.  All inanimate fixtures and conditions and all riding on the El Faro — just as there were suspects riding a train in the classic mystery “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Which of the suspects are real?  It’s unclear at first. There are seven. Here are the clues. 

First there is the stack of containers high above El Faro’s deck.  The wind is finding “sail” there, as Schulz notes. 

And the sail is there because the ship was converted to a container vessel — a configuration the ship’s original architect said is not wise for the El Faro’s narrow hull. The ship leaned even when barely underway, one captain said. 

Then there is the little “scuttle” running to the three hold  — a little hatch on the second deck added into the original ship. Again, the architect of the ship says it has been added and hurts the original design. “I understand why they added it,” he says. “It’s easier just to pop down into the hold without a long trip. But of course it creates another possible point of ingress and weakens the watertight envelope.”

Suspect numbers three and four?  

Large, louvered openings for the ventilation of the ship are running wide open — the same trunks and ducts that were shown to be rusted and corroded on the El Faro’s sister ship. 

Moreover, a large opening for loading trailers and trucks (suspect four) exists on the starboard side.  

All of these were on the original ship — but a later reconfiguration of the vessel means all the now are two feet lower to the water. 

Suspect number five comprises the vehicles stored in hold three.  Clamps should hold down each car at four points.  Instead, contrary to loading manuals, the cars are secured by one big chain running the width of the ship.  

This on the same deck that includes an emergency fire pump — suspect number six — which draws seawater directly from outside the ship. 

The seventh?  

The lube oil system for the ship’s engine requires a level of 27 inches in it’s sump.   (This stated in the machinery operating manual.) 

The El Faro left JAX low — with just under at 24.6 inches.  No problem in normal seas.  But with heel, with lean, the system loses suction if the ship lists 18 degrees to port. This could shut down the engine — and therefore most steering. 


No Hercule Poirot was at Shultz side. But data, modern day modeling, and math point to one conclusion:  All the suspects were in on this one. All had a hand in placing El Faro in peril. 

First, comes the “scuttle.”  

Shultz knows the problem here earlier and flags it to the crew. These scuttles?  They can pop open.  They have to be “dogged” down tight, not just closed and “spun.”  You needed clamps on them.  There is abundant evidence that ships through out the fleet suffered from bad gaskets and seals and the scuttle appears to be one of them. There is no reason to believe a crew faced with hurricane weather would perform such a task in a shoddy manner.

And yet the scuttle pops open.  There are no master dashboards that warn of this — not on a 40-year-old ship.  

Water “down floods’ from the small scuttle, helping to increase list, pouring water to where the vehicles are stored. 

In league with the scuttle, the “sail” is the next perp.  

 The wind catches the containers and blows the ship to starboard.  A list develops. 

The openings on the starboard side dip and receive the sea. 

Water floods in through the scuttle. 

And then as the list steepens, water flows in too through the trailer loading area and the ventilation louvres — the ‘holes” that once were two-feet higher but now scoop in seawater. 

The seawater from all sources floods the deck where the autos are stored.  

Because the vehicles are not clamped at their corners, they strain against the one large chain that links them all together.  The water on the deck means the tire of the vehicles don’t hold. 

So the vehicles skate.  They slide and skate — like hippos on ice — directly into the emergency fire pump that links to the outside seawater.  

The pump fractures and its broken piping directly admits seawater. The hold fills further. 

The engine continues to function.  The ship still has steering. 

But now there is a list to port and this means the lubricating oil for the engine has tilted too — too much in fact. The oil sump can’t function past 18 degrees and as that angle is reached, the pumps suck air not oil.  

The engine shuts down. As does most steering capability. 

This chain of failures — caused by faults in design,  maintenance, and loading — is not obvious to the officers and crew at first.   

They set out to “fight the ship” — to maneuver, pump, dump and shift ballast. 

They find the open scuttle, but know it’s not the whole problem.  

The problem is they aren’t sure  what the problem is. 


Chapter Nine: Fighting the Ship
Bridge of the El Faro
4 AM
October 1, 2015
East of the Crooked Islands
Near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin

“Hello there captain” says Chief Mate Steve Shultz.

It is 4 a.m., or 0400 hours, and Captain Davidson is back on the bridge.

“There’s nothing bad about this ride.” says the cap and adds that he’s been sleeping like a baby.

Not me, says the chief mate.

“How come?”asks the cap

The chief mate indicates the “ride” of the ship bothers him a bit. No big alarms. But it’s a rough ride.

“Well this is every day in Alaska,” says Captain Davison.

You’ve got a point there, Shultz says. “That’s what I said when I walked up here,” he says. “I said “this is everyday in Alaska.’

And he adds that the weather here — compared to Alaska — is just, like, “wind gusts.”

The cap says, “I mean we’re not even rolling.  We’re not even pitching. We’re not pounding.”

And they’ve both got a point.  The second and third mates worried about the course — but  never suggested the ship was in trouble.  The chief mate, slightly older than Davidson, knows rough water.  The ship seems fine.

By 4:12 a.m. the chief mate notes for the first time a list with the wind on the port, or left side, of the ship. Shultz, like Davidson, is a master in his own right, a Captain of Thor, who has captained vessels for many years.  

“The only way to do a counter on this is to fill the port side ramp tank up,” says the cap — transfer water from one side to the other.

“Heel is not bad,” says the chief mate.

But already, down below, it is probable the water is invading.

Sail on the containers has pushed the ship into the list and dipped the scuttle into the drink.  The circulation vents and the loading area on starboard now are scooping in water too.  Then the downflooding reachers the poorly secured cars, which start to skate and ram the fire emergency pipe input, bringing in even more water.

No one on the bridge knows this as yet.

Ten minutes later after standing on the bridge for a bit, the captain says these words for the first time.

“Sounds a lot worse up here.”

But he’s confident. His concern is for the galley and sliding dishes.  And the speed of the engine and their speed through the water.

And now this Captain of Thor takes charge.

“Going to steer right into it,” he says. He wants to take the list off.

“So let’s put it in hand steering,” he continues.  Disconnect the auto pilot — the “Iron Mike.”

With this list they have now, he explains on the bridge, the sumps are acting up in the engine room, hurting engine performance and speed.

“To be expected,” he says. “I’m going to take it right ten….” Change the course by ten degrees.

“Wooooo!” yells Hamm, as the ship swings onto the new course.  He is the helmsman.

“You all right?” the cap says to Hamm.

Hamm chuckles.

“We’re still heeling,” the captain says, and then at 503 a.m. says again:

“Sounds a whole lot worse up here.”

Five minutes later, he says to the chief mate, “Our biggest enemy here right now is we can’t see.”

But a moment later, he is optimistic. “Now we’re on the back side of the storm.”

“This is what it’s like everyday in Alaska?” he says to the chief.

“Yeah you get seventy days of this up there,” says Shultz.

An engineer- supervisor working with the conversion team of Polish nationals joins them.  He knows the vessel well.

“Now how is this list?” the cap asks. It is 5:11 a.m. now.

“I’ve never seen it list like this,” the supervisor says.  “I’ve never seen it hang like this.”

Something other than the wind catching the containers as a sail is occurring, he suggests

“Never?,” Davison queries. “We certainly have the sail area.”

Is this going to affect the engine and the sump lube oil levels, he asks.

You’ve already hit the low pressure alarm, the engineer says.

He pauses, then repeats:

“Never ever seen it hang like that before.”

Captain Davidson refers to the stack of containers on the El Faro deck that the wind is catching and says again, “Yeah.  You got a lot of sail area.”

Hamm, at the helm, reports around 5:15 a.m. that list or not, he’s got a good feel, at least for the moment.

“She rides pretty well on the northeast course,” he says but Davidson can see he is tense.

“Just relax everything’s going to be just fine.  Good to go buddy. You’re good to go.”

And one minute later, Davidson says for the third time:  “It sounds so much worse up here.

“When you get down below, it’s just a lullaby….””

But a moment later he thinks that it is  “…only going to get better from here. We’re on the back side of it.

“Get this stuff in Alaska?” he asks the chief mate again.

“Yes. Oh yes. Yeah Yeah. You get this.”

“The seas a lot like this?”

Well, Shultz says, not exactly the same.  The seas stack up high in Alaska very quick and you get very high seas…but in Alaska, you run more or less straight in. You don’t have the confusion of hurricane conditions.  You know where the waves are. You can meet them straight in.

“Yup,” says Davidson, who has sailed the same waters. “The Gulf of Alaska.”

Then at 5:43 a.m. the captain gets a call from the engine room.

“We got a prrrobbblemmm,” he announces to the bridge, drawing out the word.

Three hold is flooding. Captain Davidson dispatches Chief Mate Shultz.

A few minutes later the chief mate asks if they can use the bilge pumps.  The captain asks the engineers:  Can we pump the starboard “ramp tanks” over to port side?  Can the relatively small ballast tanks the ship has transfer water to help trim?  The idea is this will give the chief mate a chance to look at the hold if the list changes from starboard to port.

But the ballast tanks are so small, the captain suggests another step.  He’ll turn the ship and put the wind on the starboard side, so the ship lists to the port. That will give the chief a better look-see.

The turn is made and the chief mate reports that water is knee-deep — having come in from a small scuttle. The chief can now see the flooded hold better, but the turn to port has had another effect not known by the bridge.  The sump pump cuts out earlier when there is a port list.

Danielle Randolph, the second mate, joins the captain on the bridge.  He fills her in. He asks her to stay and help. And the chief mate reports around 6:00 a.m. that the scuttle is closed

The second mate repeats that to the engine room but she is tongue-tied.

“The shuttle has been scuttled,” she starts to say, then chuckles “Okay, this is going to make me laugh.”

And then she gets it right. The scuttle has been shut.

The chief mate is back on the bridge and swears the scuttles all were closed and dogged-down. Something might have popped it open.  He can’t figure it.

Davidson is worried at a little past 6:00 a.m. “It sounds like it’s getting worse.” But on the bright side, “We’re not pounding, we’re not rocking.

“I’m not liking this,” the captain says at 6:12 a.m. and one minute later he says:

“I think we just lost the plant.”

The sumps suck only air.  The list of the ship to port at 18 degrees cuts off the lube pump and the engine stops.

“They’ll bring everything back up online,” Davidson says a few minutes later, having talked to the chief engineer.

But for the first time now, everyone knows they are in trouble.

Water has come into the ship through the scuttle, through the ventilators  and loading ramp, through a fractured fire emergency water inlet too.

The captain asks that the ramp tanks be pumped back to try for a starboard list.  But this will do little. Those tanks are small.

Davidson says around 6:30 a.m., “I just want everybody up.”

He tells Randolph to prepare distress messages using the The Ship Security Alert System (SSAS) protocols.

A moment later, they have reason to be optimistic.  Davidson orders Hamm to execute a turn. The engine is their main way to steer, but they still have a rudder.

“What do you want to do, captain,” Hamm says.  “I got it right thirty.”

“Keep your rudder right twenty!” Davidson says. “Right now!”

Randolph says to Hamm, “Your’e starting to come back over…wind is off our starboard side…

“Level it up,” Davidson says. “And get over to starboard!”

The ship makes the turn and Davidson says, “That’s a small victory right there.”

“Lot of water in the cargo hold,” he says a second later.

“Yeah, but we know how to fix that one!” Randolph says. “Suck out the water.

Hamm grunts, pumps his legs, and Randolph tries to keep it light.

“You getting a leg work out,” she says. “Feel those thighs burn!”

And she tries to lighten it up a bit more, offers coffee.  She is the queen of coffee on the bridge, grinds her own beans.

“Coffee cream and sugar?” she says to Hamm.

He beams back, knowing how much she likes the coffee routine:

“You can hook it up. Do your thing. Do your thing.”

“Uh, give me the Splenda not the sugar,” he says a second later.

“How long we supposed to be in this storm,” Hamm asks the cap a few moments later.

“Should get better all the time now,” he says. “Right now we’re on the back side of it.”

But then he confirms to the second mate that the engine is not coming back online right away.  The list is too great.

Then the captain calls Tote — on the special line reserved for emergencies.  He wants to give the company a heads up. There is a special hotline for this.

But when he reaches it, the greeting seems eerily like a Comcast Cable customer service sort of hell.  Can he spell his name, please. What was the ship, please spell? Who did he want to speak to. Could you hold please?

“Uh, m’am, the clock is ticking,” Davidson says into the phone.  Could he please talk to the Tote onshore emergency contact?

Finally, the call goes through. It catches Tote unaware.  No one there seems to know there is a hurricane. Given circumstances on the ship,. Davidson seems to understate their condition and suggest they have it under control. Perhaps for Tote’s behalf.  Perhaps for his own.

“Yeah,” he says. “ I’m real good. We have secured the source of the water coming in to the vessel. A scuttle was blown open by the force of the water perhaps– no one knows …It’s since been closed.

“However, three hold’s got considerable amount of water in it. We have a

very– very– healthy port list. the engineers cannot get lube oil pressure on the plant therefore we’ve got no main engine … I just wanted to give you a heads up before I push that– push that button.

“We are taking every measure to take the list off,” he continues with the Tote executive. “By that I mean pump out that hold the best we can but we are not gaining ground at this time.”

“We’re going to stay with the ship… No one’s panicking. Everybody’s been made aware. Our safest bet is to stay with the ship during this particular time– the weather is ferocious out here….”

Again, Davidson says he is going to push the SSA button. “I just wanted to give you that courtesy so you wouldn’t be blindsided by it ….Everybody’s safe right now we’re in survival mode now.”

At 7:12 a.m., Randolph hits the distress call button.

“Wake everybody up,” Davidson yells.  He sounds almost angry.
Wake ’em up.!”

The chief and the captain confer.  The chief says the only thing he can think of is to ask the chief engineer to suck on all the cargo holds at once.  The fire main is ruptured, the chief says.  Engineering told him that.

Chief mate:

“There are cars floating in the hold! …they are subs.”

“What option do we have to close that (fire) valve so we don’t a free communication with the sea? “ the captain asks.

Isolate the fire main, the chief mate says, and they get on the horn down to engineering.

The captain says to the engine room:

“Just want to let you know I am going to ring the general alarm. I am going to ring the general alarm…we’re not going to abandon ship or anything just yet. We’re going to stay with it.:

At 7:27 a.m., the captain gives the order. “Ring it!” And General Quarters sounds

Says the cap to the chief mate, “I’d like to make sure everybody has their immersion suit..stand by… get a good head count…”

Randolph yells on the bridge a moment later above the shrill alarm:

“I’ve got containers in the water!”

At 7:29 a.m., Davidson says to ring the abandon ship signal.

A second later he says, “The bow is down!  The bow is down!”

“Get into your rafts.. throw all your rafts into the water…” he yells and continues to shout out those orders.

The SS El Faro wallows. She tilts hard, listing. Hamm slides down and slams the wall – which is now his floor.


And we are back to where the start of our story left off.

The deck of the bridge is an inclined plane. Hamm looks up to where Davidson stands, holding on, just feet from escape to the deck. Hamm tries to move up. Can’t. Slides back down.

“Cap!” Hamm says. “Cap!”

And Davidson says, “Come on, Hamm. Gotta move. You gotta get up.”

“Okay,” Hamm says. “Help me!”

“You gotta get to safety, Hamm,” the cap says.

“You’re going to leave me!” Hamm shouts back.

I’m not leaving you! Let’s go!”

“I can’t! I’m a goner.” 

“No, you’re not!” Davidson shouts.

There is a low-frequency rumble in the background, which builds, builds, builds.

Michael Davidson, master of the SS El Faro, a Captain of Thor, knows the sound for what it is. He does not move from his helmsman’s view. He does not attempt to escape.

“It’s time to come this way,” he says to Hamm, without moving an inch, as the SS El Faro capsizes on him and carries them all away


There is no surviving this.  The old lifeboats are useless. The life rafts of not much more help. Immersion suits would guard against hypothermia.  But this atmosphere does not sustain life.  No real air exists — just airborne forms of mist and seawater than cannot be used by human lungs. Dozens of containers and cars and sharp scraps churn through the water.

All are gone.

Next: Chapter Ten:  The Inquiry

(Follow this blog or follow me on twitter. @rrfrump1





  1. Mr. Frump,

    See attached letter i sent to NTSB Board member. Never heard anything back.

    Good luck with your book. The government/industry needs an honest assessment of what went wrong.

    Best regards, Bob Ford


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