What Sank El Faro and What Didn’t

Published on October 11th, 2015

When the 790-foot cargo ship El Faro went missing October 1 off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, there was hope that the Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds and 50-foot waves had not caused its demise. But that was the case, and as Mario Vittone of gCaptain details, we will never learn why…

On Wednesday night (Oct 7), the final rescue crews on the El Faro mission called in, “We are returning to base – negative results,” and left the search area. The hearts of family and friends of the 33 crew members finished a breaking that began a week ago, and all they are left with now are questions. As unspeakably tragic as the last week has been, I know that more heartbreak is coming.

The NTSB and the Coast Guard are already investigating. They will spend months on it – a year probably – and produce long reports. For those closest to the lost, the wait for answers will be the second worst wait of their lives. As promises are made to find out what happened and how, I know already what most honest professional mariners do: we won’t learn anything. There will be no solace in the reports. We’ve made these mistakes before. We already know what sank El Faro.

Though the investigation will uncover some details about what was said by whom and to whom, and about the vessel’s condition, the reason El Faro sank isn’t in those details. Those details are incidental. They can only confirm the (unintentional I am sure) failure of those involved to adequately and appropriately assess the risk associated with hurricanes.

Otherwise good people, with all the information they needed to make a good decision, made a bad one.

A couple of days ago, representatives from the ship’s owner/operators asserted that there was a sound plan to avoid the storm. Therein is all the evidence anyone needs to know what sank El Faro – the illusion of control. This is another in a long line of maritime tragedies that began with the decision to sail at all. Once at sea, the commitment to that bad decision dug in, despite the evidence that it was an even worse idea to continue. Turning around would mean admitting they were wrong to leave in the first place. Few ever do.

That the decision makers for El Faro thought they could “plan” for a named tropical storm in the Caribbean is what sank the ship. What we knew about the storm at the time of El Faro’s departure from Jacksonville is what we already knew about tropical storms in the Caribbean – that it was going to strengthen into a hurricane, and that its predicted track was somewhere between “over there somewhere” and “we have no earthly idea.” You can’t plan to avoid that, you can only avoid it or not. They chose not to. – Full story

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