The Captains of Thor:What Really Caused the Loss of the SS El Faro
A Book Written in Serialized Form. Free to Read. Complete Now at Epilogue
Thank you sincerely for your support and for your catches and critiques. My goal was to finish before October 1 — the three year mark of the tragedy. Your comments and coffee really helped.
This very much remains a work in progress, 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 — here and in the Kindle eBook.
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 “post,” let me know.) My respect for the “other side of the story” is solid, and if I am missing that part, or butchering fact or tone, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
One other note: In response to a few questions, there are no “made up quotes” here. The “bridge” conversations are drawn directly from 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, I’ll finish a book-length account of the tragedy and its aftermath by the end of the calendar year.
And with that, enough “telling.” With luck, we’ll be done by year’s end.
(Oh, and if you’d like to “speed the plow” and help me in this effort, 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
Copyright, Robert R. Frump, September 2018
My Brother in Arms
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 someday 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. This does not mean I take pure poetic license. The dialogue quoted here is real, not made up. The material is factual.
Robert R. Frump September 27, 2018
Chapter One: No World Elsewhere Works This Way
Oct. 1, 2015
Due East of the Crooked Islands
North Wall of Hurricane Joaquin
Bridge of the SS El Faro
Gentle giant and 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.
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, 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 to be 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 $200,000-a-year pay day is cut in half. His mortgage on a 4,000-square foot home, however, is not. Neither is 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 for three years as a third mate at half-pay and spends that time 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 of the El Faro from his stateroom. 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 L.L. Bean had pop-up pages, Davidson would rise straight from them in Maine Hunting Shoes and a plaid shirt and an even smile. There is this one photo 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.
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 words are spoken. The captain has been talking to the engine room and announces:
“We got a prrroooblem. Three hold, ok?”
Not okay. Not close to okay. There is water in the cargo holds. 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 weighs 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 comprises 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
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.
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 notmake 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 seemed to be this: “These ships are flawed and might break in two. We’re going to try to buy you some time if that happens. No guarantees on whether it’s enough time though.”
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 wiremight 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 horrible loss of the steamship Sultana:
Recklessness, induced by the war, . . . extended its mischievoustendencies into all branches of trade and is particularly observableamong 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 without 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 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” or “coastal shipping” provision — that reserved all in-country 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 commercial accommodation.
Here, the board said decisively that the T-2 structural soundness was in question and that most all new major modifications 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’s recommendation 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 American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) posture was that age had no effect 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 during an interview 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 congressmen too, all would say we were putting them at a great competitive disadvantage. It was a very complex system in which we made our decisions.
“So we adopted a policy that economics would determine whena 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 economics 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.
Always, some owners were willing to take a chance on marginal, cast-off vessels. And even major shipping 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.
The tragedy might have been a complete replay of the disappearance 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
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, 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. They were embracing the new, not the old. 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 Rep.Duncan Hunter, 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.”
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 theGlomar Explorerfor Howard Hughes and the CIA, and also refitted the Manhattantanker as an ice-breaker – the first commercial 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 resembling 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 could be fast. You could almost see the inner “hot rodder” smiles of the engineering team at Sun as they devised how exactly they would fit the plant 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.
Captain John Hearn stepped on board her in 2003 and from the start thought she was a special ship. She was lengthened once in the early 1990’s but kept those sleek lines and Hearn 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 then he’d 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.
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.
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 and documentation of unsafe conditions seems certain to finally block the long wave of regulator laxness.
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” towards owners.
What happened when a Captain of Thor actually did drop the hammer and say a ship wasn’t 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 andregulations be conducted and determined by knowledgeable 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 would again turn bad and a big one would go down.
For 31 years, three months, 68 days, and seven hours, Calicchio was wrong.
Chapter 5: Hunger Games
Blount Island Marine Terminal
August 27, 2015
Two months before Hurricane Joaquin
Like a Star Wars walking tank, the giant container crane reached out over the big ship, arched its long neck forward, down and over the El Faro and then ministered to the stacking of cargo container on the ship below. Cables moved, cogs clicked. The crane adjusted, calibrated, then clamped down a tons-heavy container hard into its rack on the ship.
Slam and a bang and the container locked in. At the hull, far down below, the water tension pulsed one-tenth of an inch, so solid was the ship at the loading wharf, indifferent to the new twelve-ton weight.
High above, Charles Baird, the second mate, walked from the wing of the El Faro bridge and left the bazaar of activity on the dock below. Creosote, diesel, astringent welding oxides, the fecund smell of the tide lands — all these rose up to him.
Chaos was his enemy. Baird, 52, wore creased khakis, an ironed shirt, and a precisely trimmed and beveled mustache. His decisions meant tons of metal cleared hard rock bottoms by inches. He required precision and order and walked toward it now — into the bridge area.
But he and all the other crew members knew the ship itself — its “feel,” its culture, its morale — was anything but ordered. It was a steaming mess of toxic rumors, grudges, innuendo and back stabbing. The word was that Captain Davidson, considered a “lock” for one of the new ships, had been pushed aside and one of his chief mates got the plum assignment.
All over the El Faro and throughout the Tote fleet, the word was out: This was a maritime version of The Hunger Games, a fight for survival among the older, in-place captains and a good many of the chief mates.
It was a shame because this was such a sweet run.“Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama”was the Beach Boys lyric. Baird and the others got paid to cruise through waters they wrote songs about. It was a sweet gig.
But The Hunger Games vibe was spoiling it. Whether true or not, the rumors were that some chief mates were stabbing captains in the back — spreading rumors and complaints that reached the human resources and ship manning divisions of the company.
Baird once asked Davidson why he had not gotten one of the new ships and Davidson blew it off.
“I must have said something wrong in a meeting,” he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. That’s the way it goes. He would survive, Davidson said, no big deal.
But it was a big deal. Davidson had indeed been very close to claiming one of the new ships.
It had gone down pretty much like this.
Davidson had good reason to dream good dreams in pillow talk in April. But in May, the company was polite and professional and clear. Phil Morrell, the vice president of marine operations, told Davidson they liked him a lot but right now they were going another way with the new ships.
Davidson could live with that. They were straightforward. The time wasn’t right, but doors weren’t closed.
He hung in. He wrote an email in July asking the president of the company to recommend him and reconsider him for the captaincy of a new ship and Davidson’s gambit worked. They were actively considering him again — in fact had a hiring date for him.
But then Jim Fisker-Andersen, director of ship management for TOTE Services, Inc., the operator of the vessel for its sister company and ship-owner, TOTE Maritime, Inc., sent a searing email back to the hiring executives.
“Captain Davidson is a stateroom captain,”he wrote. “I’m not sure he knows what a deck looks like, period. Least engaged of all four captains in the deck operation.”
Morrell was surprised at the tone of the note and thought it emotional. Davidson had the reputation as a solid pro. A “stateroom captain” was an insult. It described an officer who barricaded himself off from the rest of the ship and could not be bothered with the management of the crew or the securing of cargo. Morrell instinctively discounted it and moved ahead to offer the job to Davidson.
Morrell and the Tote CEO, Phil Greene, interviewed him again and Davidson thought it went well. Sometimes you could just tell.
And he was right. On August 4th, Morrell wrote a note about it to another executive, confirming Davidson’s promotion to the new LNG ships — the Marlin class.
“After thorough assessment of Captain Davidson I’m pleased to inform you that Captain Davidson will be offered a position of Master on Marlin 496. Captain Davidson will be assuming Master of the El Faro on Tuesday, so it affords us to meet with Captain Davidson face to face to convey our desires for him to sail as Master on 496.
“Will you be available on Tuesday to kindly join me so we can deliver the positive news together?”
But Davidson’s opponents ambushed the plan. Morrell just needed to check in with the crew manager for hiring Melissa Clark and Kondracki — but that meeting went poorly. The exact discussion is unknown but earlier Clark had thrown her weight behind the promotion of one of Davidson’s chief mates and stated in an email that she would brief the mate later on “the divide and conquer strategy.” (Later they would say this was an effort to bring the crew and officers together.)
The worst that could be really said of Davidson? He had been slow to relieve a chief mate who fell asleep on watch.
And then there was some futz-up with a drunken crew member who was refused entry to the ship and Davidson sent down a chief mate to deal with it. The drunk man never entered the ship area — as per company policy. But Davidson’s detractors said he ought to have taken some sort of proactive measures — an interesting temperance proposal in an industry not known for its temperance.
And Davidson’s foes remained on the hunt. There was no proof that he was a “stateroom captain.” Clark checked once and the report back was that he was out and about making certain the ship was secure, checking with the chief mate, inspecting the lashings — in fact all the things a stateroom captain did not do.
Challenged by Davidson not being a stateroom captain, management emails suggested the possibility of placing a spy onboard the ship to “rat him out.”
The result of the criticism was that Davidson — so close to getting the offer — instead was left hanging. Morrell could not ignore the hits. If Clark and Kondracki were not on board with the promotion, he and Green could not move forward. Davidson would not get the new ship.
But that message was never conveyed to Davidson. All through August and September, he was waiting in anticipation. The interview had gone so well! You could read their body language.
But he would write more than a month later to a family member, “I have no idea if I am even going on the Marlin Class vessels yet.” “It’s looking like I won’t be home until 03 December…. Again, I feel taken advantage of…but they pay really good. Who knows how long this good fortune will last?”
In fact, his evaluations by Tote had been positive. One reviewers had noted that the captain “handles all aspects of the master’s position with professionalism” and “handles a diversified and unpredictable crew quite well.”
In such an environment, the crew and officers of the fleet believed the company was pitting the chief mates against the masters so that the younger, less experienced men would ascend and the older men would be pastured out.
Kurt Bruer, a seaman who had no love for Davidson, explained what he saw happening.
“When Davidson got word that his chief mate was promised a captain job (on the new ships), it ate him up. They sent an email to him stating if you do the right thing and behaved well they would consider him for a job as well.”
So where did he stand exactly? At one point, he wrote an email about his quandary and confusion.
“Is there any particular reason or reasons why I was not considered as a candidate for the Marlin Class Vessels?
(Answer:) “No Tote is going in a different direction.
“Are there any qualities and/or qualifications that you (Tote) were looking for in the candidates, so that in the future I might be better prepared, should an opportunity present itself?
(Answer:) “Yes and I am not going to discuss that with you.”
What were the issues? How could he improve? No one was talking. What was he doing wrong? There were problems. But they weren’t going to talk to him about it?
No one was saying he was out of the running either. And he told Teresa there was still hope. If he worked hard, did the job, he still had a shot at the Marlin class ships. If he found those qualities that Tote wanted — but would not tell him about — he might just make it. If he proved himself with Tote.
One sure thing he did not want to do: Swing that hammer of Thor too hard. He had seen where that lead at Crowley.
And therein lay a bit of a dance. On this voyage, for example, would he need permission if he needed to divert? Officially, he could make the decision on his own — drop that hammer! This sovereignty of the captain was not just hidebound tradition spanning centuries, but company policy.
But in reality, Davidson had learned caution and nearly always sent out emails to the company advising them — giving them the courtesy as he sometimes phrased it — of his plans to divert. And they always replied in one manner or another. And always said he did not need to ask.
Both sides were being coy of course.
He and Danielle Randolph, the second mate, had a conversation about it once on the bridge during another voyage. The Captain was considering a course change, but first sent a heads up to the company — an act by all rights no Captain of Thor need make.
Of course what he was really saying is that he wasasking permission. He felt he could not make the decision by himself — without incurring great job risk with the company. Whatever they said the policy was, he felt he needed to ask — however you wanted to euphemize.
Randolph was on leave still in Maine and only later would she relieve Baird. But the toxic cultural cloud on the ship rained down on her even in Maine. The talk among the crew was all about betrayals.
The buzz was all about who was winning and losing in The Hunger Games. Who would go to the new ships? Who would stay behind? Were the chief mates knifing the captains? Were there stealth campaigns among the officers to gain advantage? Whose side should you be on?
Randolph was just sick of it. She was the rotating second mate on the El Faro. Seventy days on, seventy days off. She would rotate back on soon, but seventy days’ leave had not done it this time and she was thinking about her options. Law school. Oil rig platforms. She was good. She could move on from this.
Returning to the toxic culture of the El Faro depressed her. The sniping and rumors that never stopped were diminishing to everyone. And they were so out in the open. Every ship had its share of grudges and issues among crew and officers. But they mostly were just grumbles. Or at least discrete.
Not on the El Faro. Not now.
Danielle befriended a Coast Guard woman officer traveling on the El Faro for training and even the young lieutenant picked up on the discord.
Kimberley Beisner, the Coast Guard trainee who “rode the ship” between San Juan and Jax bonded with Randolph and they told stories about their shared issues in an industry still very much a male world.
Even on just one trip, Beisner picked up the full story. No one told the Coast Guard anything. But here she knew it all. What is the problem on this ship she asked Randolph. The tension among the officers, engineers and crew hummed like a tight cable.
And what normally was unspoken on board a ship was discussed openly and with malice. One seaman said he had never heard officers talking smack about other officers in front of the crew — the ordinary seamen. But on the El Faro, such disrespect was common. At one point, a master was informed he would not be captaining one of the new vessels and he resigned on the spot — just walked off.
Officers selected for the new ships were said to have “blood stripe” promotions. You got your stripes, but they’re covered with the blood of the colleague you knifed to get promoted.
So this was the disorder that Second Mate Baird found himself managing. Well, soon he would be off for 70 days and Randolph could deal with it. Baird would be back in Maine, feet up on the sofa.
Any musings about Maine by Baird were quickly displaced by the appearance of a new storm in big splotches on the full color screens. Large splotches of red surrounded by larger swirling fields of yellow and green.
Out there was Tropical Storm Erika — the latest “named” storm of the 2015 hurricane season — and she was trying hard to be a hurricane. There had been a lot of wannabees this year. Ana, Claudette, Bill and Danny, but none of the named storms had amounted to much for the Jacksonville run. Only Danny was classed a hurricane.
Tote Services, Inc., the ship’s operator had put out an alert a few days earlier, noting storm season was here and might affect the ship’s route. And storms might also hit the company’s port terminals, one in Jacksonville, the other in San Juan, Puerto Rico. So, you know: heads up out there.
No way Erika was going to mess with the El Faro, Baird figured. She was moving west and north and the ship could cut south on her regular straight-line route to San Juan, no problem. And besides, the storm seemed to be flaring out, dissipating.
But the El Faro would take some seas. Erika would kick up some swells, that was for sure, and for a moment the sound and rhythm of the voices of the Polish “riding gang” rang clear in Baird’s mind.
Five of them were working below, converting the El Faro for service in the Alaskan trade, installing steam pipes that would de-ice the loading ramps, welding down rock steady large derricks that would hoist cargoes off-ship to the Anchorage docks. They were good guys, and many spoke English. Hard workers all.
Well, they aren’t going to get much work done if we’re rocking and rolling in the rollers left by Erika, Baird thought. He thought the captain would buy his idea. The plan would add six hours and make a 2 1/2 day trip a full three days almost but that might be worth it to let the riding gang get their work done.
Here’s the plan he laid out to the Captain:
How about they moved out of Jacksonville and then swung south toward Cuba? Took what mariners called the Old Bahama Passage — a route that threaded its way through the Islands of the Caribbean?
Rather than cutting across the broad hypotenuse of a triangle through open seas, they would scoot down one leg south and then head east on the other leg. They’d find shelter to the west of the islands.
“The islands are our saviors,” Baird would tell landlubbers who did not understand the concept. “If it’s rough out there, we can duck inside and use the islands to shield us. We’ll get the wind but not the waves. The islands block the waves.”
That might steady the seas enough to let the Poles continue to work. So you had safety and economy working for you.
If the cap thought the Old Bahama Passage was too long, Baird had a Plan B.
El Faro could head straight toward Puerto Rico on her regular passage. Then, if Erika had served up swells too rough, they could duck down into the islands halfway to San Juan.
A perfect place to do this was at Crooked Island — a large island near a series of small islands in the Bahama. All the islands joined in what was known as the District of Crooked Island, but sometimes people called them “the Crooked Islands” or sometimes just “the Crookeds.”
Get west from the regular passage and transit through the Crooked Island Passage and you’d miss the pounding of the waves. East of the Crookeds would be rough.
But west of the Crookeds, the Poles could do their work. The route might even save a few dents in the cars. It was not unheard of for the big waves to set some of the cars and wheeled trailers rolling into each other. It was not unheard of for the lashing to snap and pop down on the ro-ro deck – the area where wheeled vehicles and trailers “rolled on” and “rolled off”
He thought the captain would buy the plan. In normal times at least. Davidson was a careful captain, Baird thought.
And for Davidson, “careful” had dual meanings.
Every decision he made now could affect his future. He needed to have one hand making the right decision for the safety of the ship. He needed one hand to steady his future.
If he delayed the ship? That could feed his enemies — those who were talking about spies who would “rat him out.”
Yet, he knew Baird was right — that diversion was the right thing to do.
An hour had passed since Baird posed the question on the alternate route.
Davidson called Baird over at the back of the bridge where the charts were stored. The two men stood together both dressed in the khaki shirts and pants that comprise a merchant mariner officer’s uniform. Davidson had made no call back to the company as a courtesy. He’d made up his mind.
The Old Bahama Passage plan? That was smart, Davidson said.
“Go for it,” the captain told the second. That was a favorite phrase. Not “approved” or even “yes.” Always, “Go for it.”
And Baird did. They were rolling south now — a huge warehouse traveling at the equivalent of 15 land miles per hour, filled with tons of household goods, refrigerated fresh chicken, automobiles, flat screen televisions, toys, light bulbs, washers and driers.
Anything that filled up a big box store in Puerto Rico filled up the El Faro first. Anything the good citizens on the island of Puerto Rico might need in a grocery store, car sales lot, lumberyard, or furniture store, El Faro brought them. Anything the mainland could sell, those things shipped out of Jax and much of it moved through Tote Maritime.
Around a point off Vero Beach, Florida, Baird could feel the shift in the sea as they turned toward the safer passage west of the islands.
Off to the east now were the first of the Bahama Islands – the buffer to the storm. Baird’s saviors had appeared. The wind was sharp still but somewhere out there, the Grand Bahamas caught the worst of Erika on the far shores and the El Faro faced fair seas. The rock and roll turned to a gentler waltz. The Polish crew could work safely, weld and run pipes.
Baird and Davidson steamed south and on August 30, they brought the ship in just a little late to San Juan. No damage inside the ship with the cars, nor to the containers above. The Poles had gotten a lot of work done.
More than 200,000 residents were out of power in Puerto Rico because of Erika, but the El Faro was just fine. That’s what good weather routing and navigation could do.
Big cranes stretched out over the ship in San Juan, and lifted the big boxes off the ship and onto trailer tractor trucks. Longshoremen gunned the motors of the cars and trucks in the ro-ro section of the ship and parked them in holding areas surrounded by fence and razor wire.
Tugs chugged, the El Faro turned.
And then El Faro made the pivot out of San Juan, bid farewell to the pilot and his little boat, and, riding a bit high because she was empty, the ship set sail for Jax with nothing but blue sky and sun ahead on the straight run back.
Baird’s attention turned now more and more to his leave and to Maine.
Davidson? Who knew what he was doing right? What he was doing wrong? Would that little diversion he just approved be viewed by the brass as a wise decision? Or a wasteful one?
At one point, on another trip, he has a discussion with his chief mate about their career horizons.
“When they lay this up, they’re not going to take us back,” the chief mate says of the El Faro.
“No,” says Davidson. “I know.”
Says the chief mate, “I hear what you’re saying captain. I’m in line for the chopping’ block.”
“Yeah, Same here,” says Davidson
Says the chief mate, “I’m waiting to get screwed.”
“Same here,” says Davidson. “Next they’re going to come back (and lay me off)”
“They’re just going to say the opposite to me,” the chief mate says. “‘We want you to stay through– uh– to Alaska. ‘.. and make me work five months straight. I’ll be a walking zombie.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” says the chief mate.
Me either, says Davidson, who with just a week or two break is about to start his sixth month in a row.
The one thing he was certain about was the ship. The SS El Faro was fast. She was strong. That he knew.
Chapter Six: Return of the Rust Buckets
US Coast Guard Headquarters
Capt. Kyle McAvoy, the Coast Guard Chief of Commercial Vessel Compliance, remembered a day when as a young officer he and ABS inspectors would crawl a ship together as colleagues.
There was a sense of partnership. It was not as if the Coast Guard officer had to keep an eye on the ABS inspector. They would learn from each other.
Often the ABS inspector was a retired Coastie, or a merchant marine officer or engineer, and the spirit of the post Marine Electric concern for safety remained high. The ABS inspectors had taught the young McAvoy a lot.
McAvoy, a math jock and also a marine engineer, also knew that some tenants of the hard sciences applied to the softer social sciences as well.
Statistics, for example, reverted to the mean. High points and low points all reverted to midpoints.
Hard science or soft, McAvoy and other 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.
But the net result over the years? It was indeed the exact opposite of the Marine Electric Board’s recommendation.
By 2015, 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 thirty years earlier: 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.
But now the ABS was handed more responsibility, not less. Most responsibility, truth be told.
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.
There were fans of the ABS among mariners. Check any “discussion board” and you’ll see some believe the system could work very well because it gives senior inspectors careers, versus a two-year assignment for a younger Coastie.
But you’ll also see in those “boards’ that the experience is uneven with many complaints that ABS inspectors seemed to serve as rubber stamps. There seemed no regular standards.
Captain McAvoy was worried enough that he audited a sample of ABS inspections.
He found that 38% of the ABS inspections were seriously flawed on series issues. They were missing basic, often structural requirements.
To help fight this trend, Coast Guard inspectors came up with a “scoring method” to assess potential ship dangers. They proposed the revival and strengthening of a list that had been abandoned.
. “The Ten Worst Ships” was not its official name, but in effect, called it out pretty clearly. 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.
In September of 2015, Captain McAvoy’s data crunchers and techs pushed the button to compile the list. Figuratively, bells sounded, gears turned, data bumped into algorithms and the “worst ships” sorted.
The list would be distributed in October. A new member of the club?
SS El Faro.
What had happened to Saltchuk and Tote?
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. 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 were they exactly 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 towering racks dozens 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 an ethics award, said they were the victim of a “rogue operator” but Peake still says he had orders from upstairs.)
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 another 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 standard 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.
How seaworthy was the El Faro in 2015? It was hard to tell. Based on later inspections of similar old ships, the El Faro seemed in peril from the perspective of both maintenance and design.
What was for certain? 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 built for anything. She was in that class of “frankenships” now – living long past her natural lifetime stitched together to provide maximum commercial service but not much else.
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, 2015
Blount Marine Terminal Jacksonville
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 — a sovereign 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.
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.
Copy that, Davidson said. He knew that option. He’d taken it with Erika at Baird’s advice 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 reallywant 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 himself — reviewed the route plan, 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? The question of whether Davidson would swing the hammer of Thor came later.
Later, second mate Danielle Randolph was with him — the relief for Baird. Together, she and Davidson were examining the course, with an eye on that storm. Davidson was most concerned about the return trip, after the storm had passed but the heavy chop had not. The conversation seemed to trigger Randolph’s skeptical side.
“I hope we get to take the Old Bahama Channel back,” the captain says, and Randolph picks up on the nuance immediately and has to be thinking: A Captain of Thor is….hoping? We’re taking it on theback trip, not this trip?
“Does the company want permissionnow?” she asks.
“Management,” Davidson says.
And Randolph presses it. Her inner radar is pinging. The captain rules at sea, right?
“Because it used to be just we’redoing 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 the sovereignty of captains 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.”
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 Hearn when you bucked Tote. He was aware of the Captain Loftus firing 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 Hearn. Horizon fired Konrad.
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.
“Do you know if the El Yunque took old Bahama?” says Randolph.
“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 earlier ship modifications on the El Faro 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 if need be while the ship was underway in heavy seas —was now always run with the trunk fire damper open, assuring flooding if the ships dipped too far. A portal for loading cargo also could be exposed to rough seas.
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.
And with all of that, this was undeniable:
Davidson hadto 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. Captains were expected to make calculated risks.
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 is 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.
And 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.;knb
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.”
Riehm 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,” 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,” Riehm says.
“Jesus man,” Jackson says. “Don’t tell me anymore.”
Then the helmsman breaks the tension with an Elmer Fudd voice: “ Th-th-th-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 ZzzQuil, 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 Rhiem and they compare notes — and doubts.
She points at a chart and says: “Our best chance is to 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.
“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.
The SS El Faro, already lowered by conversions two feet closer to the water, is dipping now farther to one side.
At around 3:45 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 0400 to 0700 hours
October 1, 2015
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.”
Moreover, the scuttle has been a problem in the past. You can’t just turn the hatch wheel. You have to “dog it” with special clamps – clamps that are notoriously in short supply on many of the old ships.
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. They are suspect three.
Moreover, a large opening for loading trailers and trucks (suspect four) exists on the starboard side. It is suspect four.
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 pump is unprotected from collisions if the cars break loose.
The lube oil system for the ship’s engine requires a level of 27 inches in its 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’s 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 throughout 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 ship heels more.
And then as the list steepens, water flows in through the trailer loading area and the ventilation louvres — the ‘holes” that once were two-feet higher but now scoop in seawater. These openings on the starboard side now dip and receive the sea.
The seawater from all sources floods the deck where the autos are stored, or so NTSB modeling shows.
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, it is thought, 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 Davidson.
You’ve got a point there, Shultz says.
“That’s what I said when I walked up here,” he says. “I said “this is every day 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. Or so it is thought.
The circulation vents and the loading area on starboard now are scooping in water too. Then the down flooding reaches the poorly secured cars, which start to skate and – it is thought — 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.
“We’re still heeling,” the captain says, and then at 5:03 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 every day 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. You’d never seen it this bad, he asks. “We certainly have the sail area.”
Is this going to affect the engine and the sump lube oil levels, the captain 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 into the seas. You don’t have the confusion of hurricane conditions. The chaos. You know where the waves are. You can meet them straight on.
“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. Shultz marches off bravely into the dark and flooding holds.
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 tank 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 – downsized during the conversion – that 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. This is crucial.
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 real trouble.
Water has come into the ship through the scuttle, through the ventilators and loading ramp, through a fractured fire emergency water inlet too, it is thought.
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. Conventional ballast tanks were eliminated on the ship during the conversion to a container ship so the El Faro could carry more cargo.
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, “You’re 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 on shore 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, ma’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.
“There are cars floating in the hold…they are … subs.”
The two men laughed spontaneously. For a moment.
“What option do we have to close that (fire) valve so we don’t have 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 float a human and guard against hypothermia.
But this atmosphere does not sustain life. No real air exists — just airborne forms of mist and seawater of no use to human lungs. Dozens of containers and cars and sharp scraps churn through the water.
All are gone.
Chapter Ten: Flight of the Travelers
US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation
The Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center
Jacksonville February 16, 2017
On the last day of the formal U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, the attorney for Teresa Davidson read her letter to the Board noting that the captain’s last moments showed the world the measure of the man.
He chose not to find safety for himself and instead stayed with his helmsman to the end, she wrote. And then she said through her lawyer:
“Some are surprised Michael made that choice. I was not.”
Sobs came from the attorney as he spoke those words.
Then, following suit, in closing statements, a succession of hardened attorneys and one Tote executive also choked back sobs or cried openly.
Crocodile tears, some in the crowd suggested. Stress, the more charitable said. Great showmanship by the suits, said the more cynical. Still more billable hours, said another.
Yet, the outpouring seemed genuine and familiar, as if from some ancient time of public mourning — a “kommus” of classic Greek and Roman tragedy where the chorus and hero join in a ritual mourning.
Through tears, wails, keening and song, they lament that humans cannot escape their fates. Odysseus, Jason, the heroes of the Aeneid, all were clever, resourceful and heroic. But in the end, their destiny was sealed by fate — forces beyond their control.
Which brings the two tales of our story together at last, and a sorting out of their questions.
One tale was composed of the choppy waves of recent time and told how the mortals of the SS El Faro came to sail her into Hurricane Joaquin. All in this story are bound by the rules of free will and professional responsibility.
And of this there is no doubt: Captain Davidson will be held accountable here. He was after all a Captain of Thor, in charge of the ship and her route.
The suspense rests with who else the Coast Guard and the NTSB may find wanting? The ABS? Tote? The Coast Guard itself?
The other tale told was of the large swells of time, mounded up over the decades, even centuries, by customs and culture, business and economics, politics and the to and fro of the law.
What chance did the investigators have at checking those? Of thwarting these tides of modern fate?
Once, long ago, the Marine Board of Investigation in the case of the SS Marine electric had hurled itself against those forces and checked those tides.
Over time, though, the tides prevailed— and unsafe ships again sailed the American flag.
For this board to equal or exceed the acts of the Marine Electric investigation?
Many thought it would take some sort of miracle — one that did not seem forthcoming on that last day of the hearing among the tears and sobs.
Then again, all outcomes are open in classical and contemporary true-life dramas.
After all, as a warm-up, the NTSB had raised witnesses from the dead.
First, the agency and its contracted research vessels found the SS El Faro — 5,000 feet below the surface. Then submersible craft surveyed the vessel — only to find the “flight recorder” on the bridge was sheared off.
Then, in the months after the sinking, despite the fact that the recorder beacon signal was not working correctly, another mission found this technological needle in the haystack of the Atlantic and retrieved it.
Only to find very bad news. The recording seemed hopelessly spent and corroded.
But then the audio-technical nerds rallied and worked another miracle to salvage hours of the bridge dialogue.
The result is an emotionally wrenching real-life heartbreaking pod cast of the last hours on the bridge— one that gives voice to the officers and crew as they discover their plight and then fight for life.
The transcript resulting allows those who died on the ship to speak to the living — and points fingers at important shortcomings.
But the victory there for the families of those who had died seemed offset in the “courtroom” like proceedings of the board hearings.
More and more there the Tote attorneys seemed to be running the tables with great precision.
“If Tote ran its maritime operations the way the attorneys ran the defense,” said an admiralty attorney representing one family, “then the Tote fleet would have shining brass fittings and spotless white paint.”
“No one is fighting our side” said one family member early on and at times this is exactly how it seemed.
Fact is the Tote attorneys had little opposition during testimony and questioning.
Unlike a court room, there is no set contest of adversaries in a marine board. Moreover, the unions had declined to become formal “parties of interest.” So the suits and ties before the panel all belonged to attorneys for Tote, the ABS and others with a direct business interest in the outcome of the probe.
So there would be no dramatic “I object” moments — common to the Marine Electric hearing.
Moreover, Davidson’s estate already had settled with Tote. Teresa Davidson’s attorney, provided in part by Tote, blamed the weather forecasting systems for the tragedy, and aggressively attacked any line of questioning that suggested the ship itself was unseaworthy — which implied Davidson ought to have known better.
The attorney represented his client extremely well — and that meant avoiding any suggestion that Davidson was pressured to sail or in some way knew the ship was unsafe. Such a legal tack would hurt Ms. Davidson, not help her.
Then, too, even simple questioning of witnesses by the Coast Guard was sometimes shut down by the attorneys’ objections. Investigator Keith Fawcett for example faced a storm of objections following up on Tote emails critical of Davidson.
And when Captain Hearn testified about his complaints about the SS El Faro, he was smeared by cross-examinations about the drug bust aboard a Tote ship — a crime that officials already had acknowledged was not his fault.
Then, when NTSB lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy confronted Tote executives with a tough question about what they might do differently, he ended up in a private side bar with the Tote attorneys.
There, according to author Rachel Slade, in her book on the El Faro, “Into the Raging Sea,” the Tote attorneys told Roth-Roffy he was prejudicing the hearing and that if he did not correct his earlier statement they would call congressmen to intervene.
Roth-Roffy softened his tone somewhat — but later left the NTSB for good before the hearing ended. He said the departure was for a long-sought-after teaching position, but the family members regarded Roth-Roffy as their one clear advocate.
“Who is fighting our corner now?” one relative of an El Faro crew member asked. The question came after the family ate dinner not far from the Tote attorneys one evening. “Where is our Dom Calicchio? All I hear is Tote attorneys boasting about how they shut down the NTSB.”
The board inquiry did have that outward appearance and it was a fair question. The answer was: this board did not need fiery cross examinations to get to the truth.
On the surface, Capt. Jason Neubauer, head of the board, was quiet, polite and a seemingly reserved officer. But the sometimes placid atmosphere masked the fierceness of the internal, technical parts of the investigation that was going on behind the scenes.
For unlike the Marine Electric board, this board had the advantage of the huge advances made in modern technology.
The board was in possession of troves of Tote records and communications. On staff, too, were those with doctorates in marine architecture. The company discrepancies that Calicchio unearthed through searing cross examinations, Neubauer and team were finding in even more effective manners.
The Tote attorneys could expertly guide Tote testimony — and did skillfully as they ought to have as advocates. But Neubauer and his team found the underlying facts regardless.
So to some the board seemed indeed as if the members were passive–perhaps even flummoxed.
Only a few understood that Captain Neubauer and the board had every reason to be polite.
Outside the “courtroom,” they were nailing it.
One sign of this surfaced midway through the inquiry. Dr. Jeffrey Stettler, a marine expert in engineering and architecture. was advising the board and helped commission a study to determine what the effect of the “refitting” of the El Faro for containers meant in terms of stability.
The findings were devastating to the Coast Guard and Tote. The ship would never have been certified under modern standards. In the “frankenship” format, she was seriously vulnerable to flooding. The ABS and Tote disputed the report — but its credibility was firm. The Marine Board did not have to ask hard questions when they already had hard facts.
The other resource commanded by the Coast Guard could not be seen by the Tote attorneys or spectators. Nor could they be controlled or stifled through hearing motions and objections.
If the board seemed like ducks on a quiet pond, the Travelers were the falcons of the Coast Guard marine safety branch. This they had been for more than 100 years — a division with their own heritage and legends, which predated the formal Coast organization.
The earlier roots of the Traveling Inspection Service went back — to the age of early steam when boiler explosions were killing thousands. More than 700 ships exploded in 1871 — the year serious inspection oversight was established. That dropped to 241 in a short period of time.
The modern role has placed the travelers “on-call” for Coast Guard operational commanders with ships “deemed unique, high risk or of special interest.”
For example, in modern-day history, with a firm mandate, the Travelers cracked down hard after the Marine Electric disaster. More than 70 old ships were forced into scrap. And the fierce enforcement effort helped hold the line on unsafe vessels for more than three decades.
“On-call” and “mandate” are the key words activating Travelers. For like falcons, the Travelers could only fly if given wing.
In some years, even some decades, the mandates were few. As were the calls.
Admiral Lusk described such eras — when commercial interests, supported even by maritime unions, pressured the Coast Guard to let rust buckets sail and the Coasties had little choice.
If ship owners, ship unions and congressmen all wanted rust buckets to sail? They sailed. They sailed sadly until they sank.
But now, the deaths of 33 men and women had mustered a clear mandate.
Tote might control the few hundred square feet of the hearing room.
But the Coast Guard owned the rest of the world.
In the wake of El Faro, the Coast Guard brass removed the hoods of the falcons.
And the Travelers flew.
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.
On this warm day in February, just four months after the El Faro sinking, 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.
One assumed the ABS and Tote would be buttoned up on safety following the El Faro tragedy, but the Travelers just wanted to check. If the ABS was surprised by the Travelers, the Coast Guard inspectors must certainly have been surprised by what they found.
Soon the Travelers were making a sort of 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 one put some work into it.
But out of nowhere came a call from the local Coast Guard sector chief. Confusion ensued. The tests were stopped as the Coast Guard unraveled its own red tape. (The sector chief said later it was not his intent to cease — just clarify — the process.)
The Senior Traveling Inspector on the spot stood down but was not letting it go. There was long-standing corrosion in the other trunks. He was certain of it. He wanted to make sure the ABS got it fixed.
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. The trunks could be closed but that was of no value if they were corroded.
So the Senior Traveler made a point of asking Jacksonville to conduct a detailed follow-up on the other trunks and make sure the vents in hold three were fixed.
The ABS inspectors looked at the trunks and said all was well. Honest. That first one was a fluke. Ship is good to go. The ship could sail.
There then ensued a trans-continental game of hide and seek played among Tote, the ABS and the Travelers.
Tote moved the El Yunque from Jacksonville to Puget Sound, and began converting the ship back to a “ro-ro” configuration for use in Alaska and its rough seas.
The Travelers would not let it go. Puget Sound Marine Inspectors found that despite the 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 holes in the side shell of the vent inlets.
And on it went. Tote was required to fix the ship. No sail. The inspectors, particularly the Travelers, were relentless.
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? Endless. And awful. Why did it take a self-professed 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?
And having it flagged by the Travelers in Jacksonville, just months after the El Faro sister ship slipped beneath the waves with 33 souls aboard, how could the ABS and the company continueto miss major unsafe conditions?
To some among the families, the situation seemed as if Tote were denying in the hearing that the SS El Faro ever had safety problems while at precisely the same time working hard with the ABS to send out an old ship — with serious safety problems — into Alaskan waters, some of the most dangerous in the world.
“How can a bank robber, on trial for one crime, take some time off from the trial, to boost another branch,” a family member asked. upon hearing of the El Yunque incident.
The comparison was harsh and unfair, of course. The marine board did not try felonies for one thing. And no one suggested Tote intended the consequences of El Faro.
But if the El Faro tragedy was not intended, neither did it seem accidental anymore. Whatever the Tote attorneys had gained in the hearing room, the company squandered at the dock.
The Marine Board was not looking at a Tote history in the past of poor maintenance.
Somewhat incredibly, the board members were viewing how it all worked in real time.
Chapter Eleven: Reports and Razor Blades
Coast Guard Headquarters
2703 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave
September 24, 2017
The reports of the two investigative agencies are among the most thorough in modern maritime history and will set landmark standards for future investigations.
If they are adopted.
For the power of each finding and recommendation depends on the follow-up — by the Commandant of the Coast Guard and by the Congress and Executive Branches.
You can have a brave Marine Board of Investigation. Witness the 1963 Marine Sulphur Queen inquiry.
But if the Commandant does not back you, such a report is just a beau geste.
Here, the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation releases its findings in September 2017, the NTSB a few months later in February 2018.
Both agree on most points.
Captain Michael Davidson bore the most blame for the loss of the SS El Faro.
But as to the full story of what really caused the loss, both the Coast Guard and the NTSB go beyond the crazy captain theory. They implicate Tote, the ABS private inspectors and the Coast Guard itself.
Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft endorses the formal Marine Board investigation findings and notes particularly that Tote failed to meet safety standards.
“Most relevant to this casualty…was the company’s failure to provide the necessary shoreside support for the master to perform his duties safely. The overriding authority of the master does not absolve TSI of their obligation…”
The passage does not absolve Davidson either, but it does go some ways toward bursting the “Captain of Thor” myth — that the master of the ship has absolute power and sole responsibility for a ship’s safety.
There will be no criminal charges here. There was no criminal intent apparent or exposed. On the other hand, if this was not intentional, neither was it just an accident.
Tote will be investigated for civil violations of Coast Guard safety codes, the Coast Guard’s approval of the “frankenship” conversion is harshly criticized, and the ABS inspections are described generally as a fright show in need of abrupt reform.
The Marine Board is clear about the ABS — which the Marine Electric Board said should have been eliminated more than 30 years ago. The ABS private inspections have only grown more important since the Marine Electric tragedy. Now they handle more than 90 percent of all inspections.
And yet, the ABS time and time again missed major ship deficiencies. They do a really bad job and pay no penalty for it.
“…. surveyors are not held accountable for performing substandard … inspections that miss glaring safety deficiencies…” the Board states.
“…it is clear that multiple US cargo vessels were operating for prolonged periods in a substandard material condition…a seminal change is needed to ensure safe conditions…”
Admiral Zukunft accepts that assessment, but concedes private outsourcing is a necessity these days. He directs the Coast Guard to establish “risk-based standards and polices” to oversee ABS. This could take many forms but an expansion of the 10 Worst Ships list is a possible.
“This casualty is a call to action,”he writes. “ABS can and must do better.”
“This is a call to action for the entire maritime community,”he continues. “Tote, ABS, and the Coast Guard must learn and move with a sense of urgency. This tragic story points to the need for a strong and enduring commitment at all elements of the safety framework.”
Stirring words but there are basic challenges to them.
First of them? The Commandant retired in June 2018.
Moreover, the merchant marine historically and globally tends only to reform when forced to in the wake of tragedy but the lessons don’t stick.
A famous Yale industrial systems study found conclusively that all modern major industries — from nuclear plants to airlines—are able in some way to increase safety and learn from experience.
Except for one.
Ocean transportation is the one system that seems immune to safety improvement. Actually, it’s an “error inducing” system — where pressures for performance are high and the system is run by a disingenuous but convenient assumption:
If anything goes wrong, it’s the captain’s fault.
Moreover, civil penalties are low, particularly in the United States, where 1850 legislation limits liability.
This institutional resistance to change means it is unlikely for Tote and the ABS to spontaneously reform themselves.
Post hearing, Tote acknowledged that they can and will change safety procedures. But the hearing itself seemed to show that the company did not organically come to that decision — that it continued to send out unsafe ships like the El Yunque.
On the other hand, most families and attorneys representing the interests of the El Faro victims say Tote managed the settlements of law suits with class.
The law makes it very hard for claims against a company unless gross negligence is shown. Exact numbers are not certain but there were reports of $6 million settlements with some families and estates. Less with others. But none so piddling as the $40,000 offered to some survivors of the SS Marine Electric.
“There were times when they would play hardball,” said one participant in a settlement, “but they could have really screwed people and best I can tell, they did not.”
As for the ABS, its comments on the proceeding are limited to legalistic defenses. Attorneys note that nothing in the Marine Board shows that the ABS inspections contributed directly to the El Faro tragedy — which is true as far is it goes.
The ABS statement does not convincingly address the fact that the Coast Guard found 38% of ABS inspections contained serious errors. The statement does not explain why ABS inspectors seemed all too willing to rush the El Yunque back into service.
In private, mariners and regulators alike say much of the ABS has promise. It can hire retired merchant mariners and Coasties, and give the industry informed, senior feedback on safety. But the consistency of the inspections is poor and cannot be counted on.
For the most part, ABS remains Sphinx-like, and publicly unrepentant because, it has said, it has committed nowrong-doing. The organization declines multiple requests for comment.
As to the urgent call to action?
Legislation has been passed with bipartisan backing that supports the Marine Board and the Commandant’s recommendations.
But much of it is not funded.
A key part of it would consider tripling the number of Traveling Inspectors — a move that could seriously improve ABS performance. But the bill only provides money to study the cost of such an addition. A new unit will oversee the ABS programs.
But in the House, its chief sponsor in the House was indicted for illegal campaign fund spending earlier this year.
Which will always slow down appropriation funding bills.
And with each day that passes, the momentum for change decreases. Coast Guard dollars are precious. Priorities move to the shiny new thing. The agency just recently beat back millions proposed as cuts. New ice breakers are needed up north. Drug interdiction has a renewed popularity.
One year after the Marine Board and the Commandant announced a “call for action,” three years after the El Faro sank, Tote still has not faced civil penalties.
The charges have been prepared by Jacksonville investigators — but languish at Washington Headquarters.
The temptation to view the process cynically is tempting, but belaying that are lessons of history.
The Marine Electric Marine Board actions were never fully adopted and years after the board, Captain Dominic Calicchio felt that he had failed. He was himself a merchant marine master — a Captain of Thor — before he joined the Coast Guard. He felt he had failed both.
“If nothing else, I suppose we put a scare into the inspection system, and the American Bureau of Shipping certainly cleaned up its act as a result,” he said. “At least there was that, but overall it was very, very disappointing to see how it all turned out.”
A journalist who had covered the Marine Electric case for years looked at him oddly. They had not talked in 20 years since the hearing. Calicchio had made his report, been driven into retirement and never looked back. When the Commandant ignored the ABS recommendation, Calicchio had concluded it all was for naught.
Captain, you’ve got to be kidding, the reporter said, (or something very similar.) The Travelers clobbered the old ships, Dom. They didn’t wait for the report. They sent the rust buckets to the scrap yard. They were all cut into razor blades.
“Well, if we did that …” Calicchio said after a long pause. His
eyes teared slightly. “If we did that, then it wasn’t a failure. We did
get something done, and that makes me very, very . . . pleased.”
And in a like manner, the NTSB and Coast Guard investigators, and the families, can take heart.
Flowers are nice. Reports can be promising.
Razor blades — the mariner’s phrase for a scrapped ship — are forever.
And deep in the Marine Board report on the El Faro, nearly a footnote, is a notation that the Travelers issued no-sail orders for 13 ships in the American merchant marine — more than ten percent of the total American Jones Act fleet.
The same sort of crackdown in the SS Marine Electric era sent a message that resulted in a 30-year-span where no major American merchant marine casualties occurred.
The Coast Guard, with a clear mandate, has sent that clear message again.
Old unsafe ships won’t go to sea.
And the lives of the 33 men and women lost on the SS El Faro counted.
That means something.
Epilogue — No World Elsewhere Works This Way
A ship owner, a reporter, a sea captain and a lawyer walk into a bar.
The journalist was meeting a source at the old Whitehall Club, the grand maritime hangout overlooking New York Harbor.
“This will help you understand my world,” the source said, opening the door to the club’s cozy bar area.
Once their eyes adjusted for the dark, the source, an admiralty attorney said:
“The guy at the table over there is Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez…and the guy over here you already know.”
There stood Henry J. Bonnabel, his tall and slim profile framed by the dim light, frozen in mid-sip looking back at the journalist as they made eye contact.
The two had played a game of hide and seek for five years with the reporter following and documenting in print Bonnabel’s every move as he sent out old, truly decrepit rust buckets to sea loaded with government grain.
“Bonny” Bonnabel seemed a true puzzle. For when one of his ships, the SS Poet, did go down with all hands, he exhibited true grief and mourned sincerely at services and in hearings.
Yet he seemed to show no guilt or remorse. No reform, certainly.
He continued to run the decrepit SS Penny sister ship until the Travelers, with the reporter on board observing, drove it to the scrap yard.
Whereupon Bonny loaded her up with one more cargo of Food for Peace grain, pointed her toward Mogadishu, then towed her when her engines failed in the South Atlantic. And finally, he scrapped her for a final payday.
In the bar, there passed an awkward moment and then Bonnabel broke the tension.
“You know,” he said. “You were always fair to me. But my one complaint was you singled me out for so many years before you finally got it right.”
He looked around the room gestured slightly to include the packed bar.
“We all did that,” he said. “It wasn’t just me. And I’m glad you finally got that right. It’s just the way it works.”
The pronouncement was a bit sweeping, but a Yale professor who has studied industrial accidents across major sectors would largely agree. He compares working in marine transport with a decision to smoke heavily. You know the risks. You accept them. Or at least the ship owner does.
“The owner has a …17 percent chance that his or her ship will drop dead before its allotted time and in a boom or bust industry, that is not much incentive for safety,” wrote Charles Perrow.
Because of that, he says, and some other odd factors, the maritime trades are the one modern industrial system where accidents are induced — not reduced. If people die in the process, a big stink is not raised because the deaths don’t pose a threat to the general population as an airline crash might. Mariners more or less are expendable.
In short, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but the arc of maritime safety reform bends back on itself.
No worlds elsewhere work this way.
Everyone runs an outsized risk. Or expects it. Or is assumed to.
That is how it’s been done since the first hominid straddled a log and set off from the shore. Or at least that’s how the tribe sees it. Hazelwood and Bonnabel might be pariahs elsewhere. At Whitehall, they were just one of the guys and within the tribe follow its ethical codes. All tribes have their own codes — journalists, police, politicians, priests — that the outside world will never understand but the tribe does and accepts.
That overlay may explain Tote’s reply in the most dramatic moment of the hearings into the El Faro loss.
NTSB lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy could hold his voice no longer and asked Tote Executive Vice President Peter Keller flat out to come clean and admit management failures.
“Many would argue and few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faroand its cargo and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard . . . represents a colossal failure in the management of the companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro,” Roth-Roffy said.
“As you stated, the proof is in the pudding. And, sir, you have no doubt thought long and hard about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faroand [her] crew. Could you please share with this board your thoughts about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro?”
Keller did not pause and answered thusly. He could think of nothing that they might have done or could do now.
“I think this tragic loss is all about an accident and I look to this board as well as the NTSB to try to define what those elements may or may not have been.
“I for one, with 51 years of experience in transportation, cannot come up with a rational answer,” he said. “I do not see anything that has come out of this hearing or anything else that I’ve ever seen that would talk about a cause.”
The answer illustrates three matters of importance.
First, Keller and Tote, like Bonnabel, may have a tin ear for voices outside his own tribe — an ancient one whose sins they sort out themselves. Perhaps there is no hypocrisy here. It’s just that a different language is spoken and heard.
Second, the regulatory culture itself seems to favor the industry. Here, it was Roth-Roffy who was sanctioned for what seems a logical question and it was Keller, with his jaw-dropping innocence, who escaped further grilling.
Third, the examples should show everyone that the industry is inherently not a self-correcting op.
For while Keller was speaking, Tote was battling to keep the El Faro’s sister ship, the rusty old SS El Yunque, in the dangerous Alaska trade, despite Coast Guard inspection citations showing the 40-year-old ship had serious safety violations.
Unfortunately, Perrow concludes, the Coast Guard and the NTSB will have very little chance in changing what needs to be changed because some of the challenges are economic, legal and political — beyond the scope of investigating panels.
“They could hardly come up with recommendations to be written into our maritime laws that owners…” should make less money.
And if the agencies accuse the company of pressuring their captains — as Perrow says they clearly do — they have a comeback.
“We never told him to run a risk like that; our regulations are clear that safety comes first.”
That sentence from Perrow was written more than twenty years before the El Faro tragedy but rings frighteningly close to the defense modern ship operators use.
In Perrow’s study, a third of all captains say they have been pressured into making trips they feel are unsafe — and another third say they are forced into “calculated risks.” More than 96% of all mariners say they have sailed on ships they know to be unseaworthy.
So if the Coast Guard and NTSB are helpless, who helps? Who fights the corner of the captain, the offices and the crew?
Not the unions. They want the jobs. And the ships— any ships — to keep sailing. They did not even file as parties of interest at the El Faro hearings.
And if the officers object, they can be easily replaced. The Captains of Thor can’t swing their hammer if they don’t have a ship. Davidson himself was relieved. As were Captains Hearn and Loftus.
Admiral Lusk, the head of Coast Guard safety efforts in the 1980’s, said calls from congressmen were common. He was unpatriotic, they told him, and costing the country jobs. The ship companies keep a steady stream of donations to both parties and as was clear in the El Faro hearings do not hesitate to play the congress card in tight spots.
Enabling the old rust buckets too is the protected trade law — the Jones Act — designed to assure a strong merchant marine in time of war. Ship anything from America to America: You need US crews and officers and “US bottoms” — ships built here.
But few new ships are built in expensive US yards. So the old ships struggle on beyond retirement age. They are inefficient, but the shipping rates can flex up to cover the overhead of the old jalopies.
The courts are not corrective. Rather, they too are enabling.
If the old ships sank, law suits were guided by an 1850 act that seriously limited a plaintiff’s damages. Marine Electric survivor Bob Cusick — who spent hours in the North Atlantic winter water — sought to sue and see it to the end. Money was not his interest. He told his attorneys he would pay the straight fee.
But law firms go broke that way. They can take air accidents, for example, and find tens of millions damage in pain and suffering and tens of millions more in punitive damages. By comparison, maritime cases do not even make dimes on the dollar.
Cusick? His attorney resigned the case. Eventually, he decided to take the $40,000 offered by Marine Transport Lines. It beat letting the company bank it.
So there is little incentive for the ship operators to change.
But few others receive the benefit. The maritime industry is dwindling. The Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii trades are still posh. But wherever shippers can move to trucks, rail or pipelines for intra-American transport they do.
As a result, there are only about 100 US flag ships in the Jones Act trade. And the economic cost of sustaining the high rates runs into hundreds of millions each year according to opponents, such as the late US Senator John McCain.
Periodically there are movements to repeal the Jones Act — met and turned back by the iron alliance of shipbuilders, ship owners and maritime unions. It is said that in Washington, there are fools, damned fools and those who propose the Jones Act be eliminated.
What’s to be done? How do we change what actually caused the loss of the SS El Faro?
The Captains of Thor have been bullied and implicated for decades now in a system that sets them up to take the fall. Or fires them if they object to ship conditions.
But that traditional power of the captain remains formally on the books, and there are signs that today’s captains are fighting back. Captain John Konrad, the crusading publisher of gCaptain, is one force in the movement. Captain Hearn’s courage in testifying about the El Faro’s shortcomings is another.
John Loftus, in his landmark suit against Horizon, has broken new ground. A ship company there attempted to make an example of Loftus for reporting deficiencies on a ship. And Loftus instead made an example of them.
Another factor, of course, is Coast Guard inspections. The deeds of the Travelers have been chronicled here as they tap through and inspect old ships, busting through corroded rust and scale.
And in the end, meaningful reform may all come down to hammers — the hammers of the Travelers as they test for decay in old ships, and the hammers of the Captains of Thor as they assert their old authority with new force.
Because of the loss of the SS El Faro, both now have motive and mandate to swing away at a corrosive system.
They may just be able to beat the worst of it back.