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 James Hazelwood, captain of the Exon 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 andasked 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 theEl 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 Kearn 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. Ship a container from LA to Shanghai in a competitive market? The cost is $1,000. Ship it to Hawaii? $8,000 on an American flag ship.
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.