El Faro disaster changes shipping industry's approach to hurricanes

33 crew members died when ship sailed into Hurricane Joaquin

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Hurricane Irma continues to track toward the United States, preparations are not only necessary for people and their homes, but also for ships making voyages into the areas where the storm is projected to go. 

Nearly two years ago, the ship El Faro left Jacksonville for San Juan, Puerto Rico.  But that cargo ship sailed directly into Hurricane Joaquin, eventually sinking and killing all 33 crew members on board.

The shipping industry has made changes since that tragedy to prevent future disasters.

Recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board don’t typically come until an investigation is concluded, but just before hurricane season began this year, the board released 10 recommendations for forecasters and mariners so that a tragedy like the one that claimed the lives of El Faro's crew doesn’t happen again.

The names of the 33 killed on El Faro are etched on a memorial wall not far from where El Faro departed on its final voyage in September 2015. 

The investigation into the cargo ship's sinking has since revealed that the weather information used by Capt. Michael Davidson was outdated. 

“I think it's essential they have not only the most up-to-date information, but that the captain and the bridge are both communicating off the same information,” said Pastor Robert Green, whose son, LaShawn Rivera, was killed when El Faro sank.

Green said seeing a storm looming in the Atlantic Ocean brings back haunting memories. He said he is hopeful companies and captains will improve their safety policies. 

“As we go along, not only this year but in years to come, we will probably see a lot of those lessons that we learned from the voyage of El Faro and just knowing that those 33 lives meant something and that they are actually telling us something, even from 15,000 feet below the sea,” Green said.

Rochelle Hamm, whose husband, Frank Hamm, also died aboard El Faro, is still fighting to prevent a similar disaster, advocating for Hamm Alert, an industry-wide regulation to make sure ships don’t sail toward a storm for any reason.

“Everybody should take it seriously, and two days or one day (of) some merchandise or cargo being late, to me that is better than risking lives,” Rochelle Hamm said. “It's imperative that the El Faro does not get repeated.”

El Faro’s owner, TOTE Services, released a statement Monday:

“Our captains have control and authority to alter course for any purpose, weather, crew illness, or to assist another ship at sea. Our crews are trained to deal with unfolding weather situations and are prepared to respond to emerging situations while at sea. In the matter of TOTE’s ships sailing ahead of Hurricane Irma, the Coast Guard issued port advisories for Puerto Rico and various Florida ports stating that all ocean-going commercial vessels and ocean-going barges greater than 500 gross tons should make plans to depart the port. TOTE Services has great confidence in its highly experienced officers and they are currently adjusting their sailing schedules accordingly.”