For doomed El Faro crew, concern turned to panic
NTSB audio transcript shows captain was urged to change course
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Crew members aboard a doomed cargo ship expressed increasingly dire concern -- occasionally tinged with gallows humor -- as a hurricane gained strength, culminating in one crewman lamenting "I'm a goner" as they scrambled to abandon the listing ship, transcripts show.
The 510-page transcript released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board provides a glimpse at the final hours for the crew of 33, all of whom died when El Faro sank on Oct. 1, 2015. Some of those on board questioned the captain's decision to sail closer to Hurricane Joaquin, which took an erratic path as it swirled in the Atlantic.
Audio from the data recorder recovered last summer from the ship's resting place 15,000 feet deep near the Bahamas recorded conversations on the ship's bridge, along with weather and positioning data.
"Nobody in their right mind would be drivin' into it," one crewmember said of the hurricane, the afternoon before the ship sank.
"We are. Yaaay," second mate Danielle Randolph responded with a sarcastic laugh.
Instead of rerouting or returning to Jacksonville, Florida, Capt. Michael Davidson decided to watch the storm closely through the night. He thought the storm would be worse on the journey back to Jacksonville from Puerto Rico and emailed officials at the company that owned the ship, Tote Maritime Inc., to ask if he could take what he thought would be a safer route on that return trip.
Davidson said he hadn't heard back. "It's 160 more miles. That's more fuel. You know?" he replied.
Eventually, a Tote official did respond "authorized." U.S. Coast Guard investigators have raised questions about whether Davidson was under time pressure and chose the more dangerous, direct route. Davidson's wife, Theresa, has said he was safety-conscious, getting in trouble with a different company when he refused to take out a ship that had steering problems.
In a statement, Tote denied having any say in Davidson's voyage planning, saying it was up to him.
"Our crews are trained to deal with unfolding weather situations and are prepared to respond to emerging situations while at sea," the company said.
Back on the ship, Davidson left the bridge around 8 p.m. to get some rest, telling his crew to monitor the weather. As the night progressed, some crew questioned why Davidson didn't take a safer, longer route to San Juan - the same route it took during Tropical Storm Erika a month earlier.
"Guess I'm just turnin' into a Chicken Little, but I have a feeling like something bad is gonna happen," third mate Jeremie Riehm said while on watch at about 10:40 p.m.
As the clock ticked past midnight, the crew steering the ship started discussing their survival suits and whether their emergency beacons were working.
The El Faro had dipped south a bit to try and skirt the storm, but "every time we come further south the storm keeps trying to follow us," Randolph said, telling a colleague with a laugh that "all the other ships high-tailed it away."
Then, a news alert came over the radio: Joaquin had grown into a major Category 3 storm.
"Oh my God," she said.
Three minutes later, at 1:15 a.m., the ship rolled hard from a big wave.
At 2:47 a.m., the ship continued getting battered by large waves. The second mate called Davidson in his state room; it took him a few rings to pick up.
Davidson appeared on the bridge at 4:09 a.m., according to the transcripts. He immediately set out to calm nerves.
"Well, this is every day in Alaska," he told chief mate Steven Shultz and another able seaman. About a half-hour later, Shultz said the engineer called because the ship was tilting and oil levels were problematic. A crew member said El Faro had never listed like that, but Davidson replied things would get better.
They didn't. At 5:43 a.m., one of the ship's cargo holds began flooding. Davidson sent Shultz to pump it out. He also tried turning the ship to get the wind to help stabilize things.
A half-hour later, the ship lost propulsion. Davidson called Tote to report the situation as water continued pouring into the hold.
At 7:24, Davidson says: "We're definitely not in good shape right now." Five minutes later, the high frequency ringing of the abandon ship alarm is heard. The captain, Randolph and another crew member discuss grabbing their life vests. But within moments, the captain says: "Bow is down."
Davidson tells everyone to get off the ship, but a seaman is paralyzed by fear and says to Davidson: "Help me. Help me."
"Don't panic," Davidson says. "Work your way up here."
"I'm a goner," the seaman says.
"No you're not," Davidson replies.
Moments later, at 7:39 a.m., only yelling is heard before the recording stops.
"I think what the evidence is going to show is that people did get off of the ship. They got into the water, they lowered themselves down on ropes to the waterline. But what happened after that is, you’re in hurricane-force seas and if you're not in a survival suit, if you're not in a life boat, if you're not in a life raft, your chances of survival are very small," marine attorney Rod Sullivan said.
Sullivan, who represents the family of one El Faro's crew members, said apparently the ship had been taking on water since 3 a.m., but no one knew it.
"Well, the reason things seem to be fine is because there are tons and tons and tons of water in the hold of the ship that you don't yet know about and that's slowing down your progress, making your ship, making it appear more stable until that water shifts and then when that water shifts everything just goes crazy," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said it's the captain's credit that he and an “able seaman” stayed on the bridge until the very last moment. But Sullivan also expressed criticism, saying the captain seemed overconfident, and that proper planning would have kept the ship from coming so close to the hurricane.
Victims' families lash out
After the release, family members of the El Faro crew meet privately with NTSB officials to ask questions about the findings. Those who couldn't make the trip could take part in a webinar at the same time so they could ask questions remotely.
Those meetings didn't quell their frustration.
"I would have thrown the captain overboard board and tried to save myself and the ship," Patricia Quammie said. "Being the captain, I guess he decided that he was on the best course. I'm pretty sure when working for the captain, you are loyal to him. So they just decided to go whatever way he went."
Looking back, family members said it's easy to see how things could have been done differently.
"It shouldn't take six or seven calls to make (the decision to change course)," said Frank Hamm's widow, Rochelle. "Had he done it sooner, we wouldn't be here."
Family members who made the trip to Washington said some of their questions were answered Tuesday, and they'll now wait for the full investigation to be completed.
"Us, as families, we are seeing a whole different picture of the maritime industry," Hamm said.
Pastor Robert Green, whose son LaShawn Rivera was among those lost on the El Faro, couldn't make the trip to Washington. He and others wish it hadn't come during the holidays.
“I think the timing is really tough. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a time that we often miss our loved ones the very most, even in the most usual situations,” Green said.
Painful to hear of last minutes of loved one's life
Glen Jackson and his sister, Jill, learned from Tuesday's briefing that their brother, Jack Jackson, might have been the last person on the bridge with Davidson. They are still going through all the documents the NTSB just released and said they may not heal as long as there are questions as to who was responsible for the sinking of the ship.
"My long-term goal is to hope that we can see that other maritime families never experience this kind of unexpected loss," said Jill Jackson d'Entremont.
While people are focused on the captain's decision not to change course, the Jackson family's attorney, attorney, Bob Spoher, pointed out other problems with the El Faro. A recovered lifeboat showed the ropes used to lower them appear to have never worked and were jammed. He also mentioned that out-of-date weather information contributed to the tragedy.
While 25 of the families of the El Faro victims have accepted a $500,000 settlement with Tote Maritime, the Johnsons are among a few still pursuing a wrongful death claim. They want to use the legal process in addition to the official investigation to get to the bottom of what happened, to find out who is accountable and legally responsible.
"To try and make sure steps are taken so this doesn't happen to any other family," Spoher said.
The Jacksons' lawsuit won't be heard until May 2018.
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