It is October 2015 and a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, El Faro, sets off on its weekly run from Jacksonville, Florida to Puerto Rico. It's hurricane season but they are used to these conditions, they are receiving frequent weather updates, and besides, the Captain earned his stripes in the stormy, mercurial Alaskan waters.
Yet, less than 48 hours later, the ship sails straight into the eye wall of Grade 3 hurricane Joaquin. Alterations to its course have directed it closer not further away from one of the worst hurricanes the Bahamas has ever known. El Faro sinks swiftly. The entire crew of 33 goes down with the ship.
El Faro, pictured without its cargo
The last heard from the ship was a message from Captain Davidson to the shipping company's safety-and-operations manager, John Lawrence. Davidson sounds calm as he reports that they have lost the engine, that the ship has taken on water and is listing at a steep 15 degrees. He finishes by saying: “O.K. I just wanted to give you that courtesy so you wouldn’t be blindsided by it, and have the opportunity. Everybody’s safe right now. We’re in survival mode now.”
A known stickler for safety, Davidson was a responsible and experienced Captain. The ship was 40 years old, but, apart from superficial rust, was a sturdy and well-maintained vessel. How did the worst USA maritime disaster in 30 years come to pass?
Hurricane Joaquin on October 1 2015. That morning, it had overwhelmed and sunk El Faro
The retrieval of the ship's data recorder from the wreckage 3 miles deep has brought to light a series of human misjudgements and technical issues that on their own are nothing remarkable. With the harrowing advantage of hindsight, however, we can see each minor error winching the destiny of El Faro into closer and closer alignment with an insuperable force majeure.
William Langewiesche has produced a gripping account of the last hours onboard El Faro from the lengthy transcript, salvaged from the data recorder, of everything said on the bridge. In a piece for Vanity Fair, he investigates the threads that conspired to the ship's sinking including a culture of implicit pressure within the shipping company to stick to schedule, the erosion of the Captain's executive decision making powers and a reliance on out-of-date weather reports.
The complete article can be read on Vanity Fair, here.