The final report regarding the sinking of the TOTE Maritime vessel, the El Faro, on Oct. 1, 2015 was released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Tuesday.
“The deadliest shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years was caused by a captain’s failure to avoid sailing into a hurricane despite numerous opportunities to route a course away from hazardous weather,” said the NTSB.
The 790-foot cargo vessel was sailing to San Juan from Jacksonville, Fla., when it sank during Hurricane Joaquin. The ship departed Florida Sept. 29, 2015, and had a range of navigation options that would have allowed it to steer clear of the storm that later became a Category 4 hurricane, NTSB said.
“The captain, consulting outdated weather forecasts and ignoring the suggestions of his bridge officers to take the ship farther south and away from the storm, ordered a course that intersected with the path of a hurricane that pounded the ship with 35-foot seas and 100 mph winds,” resulting in the deaths of all 33 crew members. Damages from the sinking are estimated to be $36 million, according to the NTSB.
Of the ten safety issues identified by the NTSB, the majority of the blame fell on the captain and his inability to lead his crew to safety. Additional safety issues were identified in the loss of propulsion, lack of suitable survival craft and flooding at the time of the sinking. The NTSB said that the poor oversight and inadequate safety management system of the ship’s operator contributed to the sinking as well.
“Seawater entered the ship through cargo loading and other openings on a partially enclosed deck in the ship’s hull, pooled on the starboard side and poured through an open hatch into a cargo hold. The hold began to fill with seawater, and automobiles in the hold broke free of lashings and likely ruptured a fire main pipe that could have allowed thousands of gallons of seawater per minute into the ship – faster than could be removed by bilge pumps,” the NTSB found. Propulsion was lost soon after and unsuitable survival craft left the crew with no chance to escape the sinking ship.
“We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.
“Although El Faro and its crew should never have found themselves in such treacherous weather, that ship was not destined to sink. If the crew had more information about the status of the hatches, how to best manage the flooding situation, and the ship’s vulnerabilities when in a sustained list, the accident might have been prevented,” said Sumwalt.
As a result of the 26-month long investigation, the NTSB made 29 recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard, two to the Federal Communications Commission, one to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine to the International Association of Classification Societies, one to the American Bureau of Shipping, one to Furuno Electric Company and 10 to TOTE Services. A summary of the recommendations can be found here.
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