Chapter Six: Rust Buckets
Aboard the SS El Yunque
Sister Ship of the SS El Faro
If Captain Davidson was certain the El Faro was a strong ship, some experts in the Coast Guard were skeptical.
So it was that Tote was conducting its annual inspection of the El Yunque, the sister ship of the SS El Faro, when — big surprise! — who should show up? The Travelers.
The Travelers were officially titled US Coast Guard Traveling Inspectors — a serious and potent force within the agency and a strong advocate for serious safety standards.
Their legacy dated back to the Marine Electric days when Travelers, given the mandate, followed their instincts and scrapped more than 70 old rust buckets.
On this day, a warm one in February, they were there to “help” inspectors from the American Bureau of Shipping — the TOTE paid inspectors, who were the privatized version of Coast Guard inspectors. The visit followed a study that showed nearly 40% of ABS inspections missed significant safety regulations.
Soon, the Travelers were making music down below. Spot some corrosion? Commence percussion. Pick up your hammer and test it out. Could you punch through the rust? Then so could water and waves.
This was particularly true, it seemed, in the ventilation trunk chambers, a part of the system that vented out the cargo area of auto and truck fumes. Punch-through came quickly and the Travelers wanted to test it more thoroughly.
“This test, which was performed in a typical manner using a hammer, resulted in a hole through baffle plating that was required to be watertight,” a report later stated.
In fact, pictures of the plating seemed to resemble the tin roof of a rusted backwoods distillery unused since Prohibition ended. More holes than metal, it could be classed as junk if you put some work into it.
But out of nowhere came a call from the local Coast Guard sector chief: The travelers were to stop the inspection. Immediately. The tests exceeded the audit by the ABS now underway.
The Senior Traveling Inspector on the spot obeyed the order but felt strongly that that the long-standing corrosion existed in the other trunks.
This was no small deal. The trunks were lower to the water than original ship designs and if the vessel experience severe rolls or listing, there was a “down flooding” risk. Water would be scooped in through the tanks — and down into the hold. This could happen in severe weather — a hurricane for example.
So he made a point of asking Jacksonville to conduct a detailed follow-up on the other trunks and make sure Hold 3’s vent was fixed.
The ABS inspectors looked at the trunks and said all was well. That first one> Just was a big flukey thing.:
“So after this was discovered we looked at the port side as well and then we sampled other trunks to verify that they were in good condition. This one that you have pictures of is the only one that was found in this condition with regards to the corrosion.”
Then on March 1, 2016, TOTE moved the El Yunque to Puget Sound, and began converting the ship back to a “ro-ro” configuration for use in Alaska and its rough seas.
The Coast Guard inspectors would not let it go. Puget Sound Marine Inspectors found that despite 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 holds in the side shell of the vent inlets.
And on it went. TOTE was required to fix the ship — or keep it at dock. The inspectors, particularly the Travelers, weren’t having any of it. You could run from Jacksonville; you could not hide in Puget Sound. Not with the Travelers on your case.
Finally, in August, six months after safety violations were first surfaced, TOTE gave up — and decided to scrap the El Yunque.
The questions this incident raised? Why did it take a safety-minded company like TOTE so many years to find obvious corrosion? And how could the ABS have missed it? If the Travelers had not been there, how long would this have carried on.
The most serious question of all was this one: Did the SS El Faro have the same wastage in its trunk vents? Would it be subject to down-flooding in rough seas, or with a list? Would the ventilation shafts meant to bring in clean air dip into the sea instead and flood the ship?
The answer always would be uncertain but the Coast Guard brass thought it a fair question and comparison. Sister ships. Same company. Same routes. Same length of service. Same ABS inspectors. The question seemed to be why would the El Faro not have such a problem.
The El Yunque incident was not the first when TOTE seemed to flirt at the peripheries.
Captain Hearn, the Lewes, Delaware, master who captained El Faro during the Iraq war, and who was a fan of Saltchuk, believes he 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 (the ro-ro version of El Faro) 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 those special ventilation trunks cut into the hull — the same ones the Travelers hammered on. The ducts were essential to get rid of exhaust fumes from the trucks and cars loaded onboard. They were designed to be waterproof when the ship drew 28 feet of water.
What would happen if she drew 30-feet — two feet closer to the waves? If the ship saw a sizeable storm and the containers caught the wind and the ship developed a list, what happened to the special ducts? How waterproof exactly were they after 25 years?
Those were some of the question a major review would consider.
Then there were the lifeboats. They were old fashioned Lusitanian devices — gravity drop and not enclosed. Much of any list to a ship and they were useless. In the twenty-first century, ships were required to have enclosed lifeboats that launched from the stern. These were “Captain Phillips” type devices. Tom Hanks could run one — and did in the movie. You jumped in; you pulled a lever; hatches sealed; props whirled. You were launched, however rough the seas and propelled away from the sinking ship.
Fact is: 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. The Coast Guard requirements were 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 was simple. 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 at least heard by the government this time.
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 in 2015 and 2016, Saltchuk, spent more than $1 mllion.) Nothing made Saltchuk unusual in the world of corporations. The recipients of the new money — the largest — seemed carefully targeted. Standard practice.
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. Change did come. 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. The container stacks would literally create a sail.
But a container ship she became and at age 30 – ten years after the normal lifetime of a ship — the old girl learned a new trade.
She loaded cars, trucks and refrigerated vans below. And above, the longshoremen stacked on racks hundreds of containers. Her service in The Jones Act trade was assured.
But not her stability. Had she been subject to today’s standards, she could not be built: she’d flunk stability and damage risk tests. Studies all showed that later.
And that was if she were brand new.
Which she was not in 2015. Not even close to it.
The El Faro wasn’t built for Alaska. She was no longer built for speed. She was built on a budget to optimize cargoes.
Captain Hearn knew little of these specifics. It just felt bad to him that Saltchuk would perform such a nautical vivisection. Something felt wrong. He felt something was “off” 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 Sea Star company, or at least the part that later was to become Tote and owned the El Faro, had engaged in a criminal conspiracy for six years, with other ship lines in one of the largest ever price-fixing schemes.
Sea Star and Saltchuk were losing $20 million a year in 2002 according to writer Walter A. Pavlo, Jr., a specialist in white-collar crime, who reported the affair for Forbes magazine. Orders from Sea Star headquarters were simple: turn it around, no questions asked.
None were, and executive Peter Baci determined that what Sea Star Lines needed was a nice price increase — rates that would generate $40 million in sales and place the company into the black. So he met with the other lines and got them to agree to fixing the rates.
Pavlo wrote that “…with this plan, SSL was a turnaround success. In 2002, SSL had lost money but in 2003 it had its first profitable year…. with other profitable years to follow.
“The attitude around the office of SSL had changed from concern about the company staying open to plans for company get-togethers and bonuses…Everyone in the ownership group was happy with the performance of the company and how Peter was managing things.”
Not so much once they saw what the feds were charging them with. Sea Star Lines pleaded guilty to felony price fixing charges and paid more than $14 million in fines. The company later changed names to Tote Maritime, Inc., and cleaned house of most everyone connected with the old Sea Star op.
But the rate fixing conspiracy stands as one of the worst in the history of shipping, one that cost consumers millions. Prosecutors sought and won the toughest sentence in the history of anti-trust convictions. Peake, the former president of Sea Star, now Tote, was sentenced to five years. (Years later, the company, upon receiving its ethics award, said they were the victim of a “rogue operator.”)
Hearn was a mariner, not an accountant, and while the price fixing was despicable, he was more concerned about safety issues.
Built for Alaska? He sailed the new El Faro – many years after his Iraq deployment. He did not know what she was built for, but it was not safety.
When he was on her bridge, he found that the ship listed-even without wind. The containers seemed to ruin the ship’s balance. Wind would catch “sail” on the containers and the ship would list farther. When he gave a simple rudder command, the ship would lean.
Worse, Hearn saw deteriorating conditions on the ship — and a sister ship, the El Morro. He reported a hole in the El Morro that needed to be fixed in the ship’s hold. The company said it would be fixed. It wasn’t. Hearn complained again and stated it affected the water tight envelope of the ship. He was forced to go to sea with the hole unfixed — unthinkable aboard the Northern Lights.
Slowly, a big chill set in with the company he once loved. Routine requests for routine safety items seemed to brand him a trouble maker. Hearn would not back off. He wasn’t one to make trouble. He felt he was preventing trouble.
Then, in 2013, Tote fired him. Two deckhands were busted in Florida for smuggling cocaine. No officers were implicated. A review of DEA records under the Freedom of Information Act, shows the officers were never suspects in the smuggling. Moreover, Tote runs 100 percent “luggage” checks of crewmen — conducted by an outside security agency. But Tote said Hearn ought to have prevented the smuggling.
Hearn lawyered up. He went to arbitration. Tote ate every accusation and lost. But Captain Hearn – a merchant marine hero of the war — would never sail for Tote again.
How safe was the overall fleet, staked heavily with overage ships?
So far as the ABS missing major corrosion, the El Yunque was not an outlier. Coast Guard studies would find that 38 percent of ABS inspections flunked a Coast Guard review with frequent serious oversights in applying safety codes.
Captain Dom Calicchio’s fears had been realized. The recommendation from the SS Marine Electric investigation was to eliminate these private inspections and conduct them solely through the Coast Guard. The best minds of the Coast Guard had said it plainly: The ABS had a conflict of interest because they were paid by the ship owners. Only government inspectors could maintain a core value of protecting the crew and public from unsafe ships.
Twenty-five years later the reverse had occurred. The inspection system had been outsourced and now more than 90 percent of ships were enrolled in the Alternative Compliance Program. This meant the ship operators paid ABS a sum to inspect the ships.
How seaworthy was the El Faro in 2015? It was hard to tell. If the ABS inspections of the El Yunque sister ship were a guide, the El Faro was in peril, with rusted ventilator trunks all too exposed to a rough sea.
But 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 really built to float. At least not in any storm that might cause her to dip.
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.
Next: Chapter Seven: the Petulant Storm