The U.S. Coast Guard said it believes that the cargo ship El Faro sank in its last known position near the southern Bahamas Oct. 1, unable to escape the path of Hurricane Joaquin. None of the ship’s 33 crew members have been found alive, and just one body has been recovered.

The loss of the El Faro, considered to be the worst U.S. maritime disaster in recent history, has left some maritime experts questioning the wisdom of the voyage in the face of an escalating tropical storm, as well as the integrity of the 40-year old ship, which experienced an unrecoverable engine failure as it sat in the storm’s path.

The 790-foot ship was making a routine run from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico laden with cars and containers. It left port Tuesday, Sept. 29, skirting the eastern edge of the Bahamas as Joaquin, then a tropical storm, quickly escalated into a category-4 hurricane.

The El Faro’s engine failed as it moved southeast, leaving the captain unable to steer. The eye of the hurricane converged with the path of the ship, exposing it to 50-foot seats and sustained winds of 125 mph. Instead of continuing west, the storm stalled in place before slowly moving northeast and back out to sea.

The ship issued a distress signal as it took on water and listed dangerously. At 7:20 a.m. on Oct. 1 all communications with the ship ceased. The El Faro’s last known position was about 35 miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas, in a channel about 15,000 feet deep.

One person was found dead inside a survival suit, which is designed to keep people afloat and safe from hypothermia. The Coast Guard has also recovered a number of empty survival suits, a container, a cargo door, plastic foam used to line containers, and a heavily damaged El Faro lifeboat.

The El Faro’s tragic sinking has prompted some of those familiar with the ship to question why the captain chose the path and schedule he did, apparently not accounting for an escalation of the tropical storm, instead of taking an alternative route or delaying the voyage.

“My question is: Why did it go out?” one stand-by crew member of the El Faro told The New York Times. “The storm was there. Why go? Why?”

Capt. Sam S. Stephenson, a former merchant mariner and Naval Reserve officer who pilots a harbor boat in Port Everglades, told The New York Times that it would have been safer to travel along the Florida coast to the old Bahama Channel and the north coast of Cuba, then heading to San Juan from there.

TOTE Inc., the owner of the El Faro, has said it had confidence in the captain’s decisions, the condition of the ship, and said the ship was not rushing to meet a deadline in spite of the weather.

Capt. William H. Doherty, the director of maritime relations at Nexus Consulting Group in Arlington, Va., and a former commander of tankers and container ships who also served on numerous Navy warships, told The New York Times that the tragedy didn’t have to happen.

“This is a tragedy that certainly could have been avoided,” He said. “That ship was 40 years old. In spite of all that anybody tells you, this ship was on extended life support.”
El Faro’s disappearance remains under investigation by both the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Source: The New York Times

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