The secrets of what sank the El Faro container ship and its crew of 33 are resting in 15,000 feet of water, a location confirmed Monday by federal investigators.
The 40-year-old ship left Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 29, bound for Puerto Rico. Two days later, it sank in Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 hurricane off the coast of the Bahamas. The cause remains a mystery.
The Oct. 1 loss of the El Faro with all hands aboard was the first sinking of an American-flagged ship since the Marine Electric went down off the coast of Virginia in 1983.
The disaster has focused attention on the maintenance and age of the American commercial fleet, which averages about double the age of the international fleet.
The family of crew member Lonnie Jordan has sued the owners of the El Faro, alleging that the captain was negligent and that the ship was “in an unseaworthy condition to handle the conditions of a violent storm,” according to Willie E. Gary, a Florida attorney representing Jordan’s family.
But several maritime officials say the age of the El Faro had nothing to do with its fitness. The National Transportation Safety Board reported last week that the ship had passed Coast Guard inspections in February and March.
Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, an industry trade group, said that U.S. Coast Guard standards and inspection practices are the best in the world. “We pride ourselves on an excellent, excellent safety record,” he said. “We have the highest safety standards in the world. The Coast Guard insists on it.”
Paxton said anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 seamen are lost every year worldwide, a heavy toll that bears no resemblance to the U.S. maritime industry. “The ships we build are built very, very well,” he said. “That’s why they can run so long.”
The U.S. fleet is largely the product of a 1920 law, called the Jones Act, which protects the U.S. maritime industry by requiring that all goods transported between ports in the 50 states and territories of the U.S. must be carried on ships domestically built, flagged and staffed.
Critics have asserted that the act allows extremely old ships to continue to sail into dangerous waters by providing them with a protected market — at a high cost to the U.S. economy.
Economists say the Jones Act is a vestige of trade policies that have been in retreat around the world for decades. “Any protection raises costs. That is its purpose,” said Alan Deardorff, an international trade economist at the University of Michigan. “Protection is sought by industries that are facing lower-cost competitors. It raises costs to consumers.”
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has argued that U.S. shipbuilding has been eroding for decades, despite the Jones Act, and has called for repeal of the law. The U.S. had 1,100 ships in the Jones Act fleet in 1955 and now has only 90, said Brian Slattery, a researcher at Heritage.
But Paul N. Jaenichen Sr., chief of the Maritime Administration and a career seaman, says the Jones Act supports a vibrant U.S. maritime industry, which accounts for 100,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in net exports.
He added that despite persistent complaints about the age of the U.S. fleet, “the notion that the Jones Act is a contributing factor in the El Faro event is nonsense.”
The 791-foot El Faro was built in 1975 and owned by Tote Maritime, a New Jersey company that specializes in shipping to Alaska and Puerto Rico.
The El Faro left its home port in Florida at 8:15 p.m. Sept. 29 — about three hours after a hurricane warning was issued by the National Hurricane Center. It carried a cargo of 391 containers, nearly 300 trailers and cars and a crew of 28 Americans and 5 Polish repair workers.
Because of the approaching hurricane, Capt. Michael Davidson diverted his course toward the southwest quadrant of the storm, a routine maneuver in the Atlantic to seek refuge in the weakest area of wind and wave action, maritime experts say.
By 7 a.m. Oct. 1, the captain radioed his company that a hull breach had occurred, the ship had taken on water in its No. 3 hold. El Faro, he reported, was listing at 15 degrees and had lost propulsion. By then, the hurricane had been upgraded to a Category 4 with winds exceeding 130 mph, and it was heading toward the disabled ship.
The hull breach was likely from a hinged hatch, known as a scuttle, that the captain had reported “blown open.” It is unclear how large the hatch was, but it probably allowed in enough water to overwhelm the bilge pumps. The water was unlikely to have affected the engine, which is in another sealed compartment, said Capt. Harry Bolton, director of marine programs at Cal Maritime, a campus of the California State University system.
Without propulsion, the ship could not maneuver in 40- to 50-foot waves and was more vulnerable to capsizing. The last electronic communication from El Faro put it off the Bahamas about 20 miles from the eye of the hurricane.
Prior to the storm, the Coast Guard granted Tote permission in September to shut down one of its two boilers while at sea for an inspection. An independent boiler company recommended afterward that both boilers be serviced, which was scheduled for this month.
Gary, the attorney representing the crew member’s family, said the the ship’s scuttle probably blew open and the engine failed because of poor maintenance and age.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” Gary said. “I don’t know how it made inspection. They patched it up and patched it up. The question is whether it should have been out there in the first place.”
But Bolton, who once served as an officer for Tote Maritime aboard El Faro’s sister ship, described the El Faro class ship as extremely rugged and Tote as a good, safety-oriented employer.
Bolton, a captain in the US Merchant Marine with over 40 years of experience at sea, said the breach of the hull and the loss of engine power were probably unrelated, meaning that a convenient and simple explanation such as an exploding boiler is unlikely.
“The issues are way more complicated than any non-mariner can contemplate,” Bolton said.
So far, the NTSB has said nothing about what may have caused the loss of engine power or the flooding. With the meager evidence in hand, determining the cause of the sinking is likely to be highly complex and will depend on finding the ship’s event data recorder.
After more than a month of intensive searching, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Navy spotted what looked like the El Faro wreckage over the weekend, then confirmed the finding Monday with a special deep submersible observation vessel.
The data recorder was supposed to detach from the ship and float, emitting a signal that could lead investigators to its location. But no signal was ever picked up and experts believe the device became stuck on the ship when it sunk.
The discovery of the wreckage will allow investigators to closely examine the ship and possibly retrieve the data recorder.
In the Air France 447 crash in 2009, investigators ultimately found wreckage in about 15,000 feet of water and eventually recovered data recorders after two years of intensive effort.