October 08, 2015 | Industry Insights

El Faro Among Worst Commercial Shipping Losses off U.S. in Decades

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When the El Faro cargo ship and its 33 crewmembers left the port of Jacksonville, Florida last Tuesday, October 1, Joaquin was a tropical storm. Yet, as the ship approached the Bahamas, Joaquin turned into a Category 4 hurricane, and by Thursday, El Faro was trapped in the crush of 50-foot seas and winds of 125 miles per hour, near the eye of the hurricane. Listing dangerously 15 degrees, the ship, full of cargo containers and cars, was taking on water. The engine failed, making it impossible to steer. Then, after a distress signal, all communication vanished at 7:20 am. By Monday, October 5, the Coast Guard released photos of the ship’s debris, including a large piece of metal; on Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it’s halting the search for survivors and will shift focus to locating the vessel’s data recorder.

The sinking of El Faro is the worst in recent memory near the American coastline and is raising a lot of hard questions. This includes whether the growing storm should have been cause for greater concern. Investigations are focusing on the call to risk navigating through a hurricane rather than the captain or company deciding to take the safer, but longer route down along the more-protected Florida coast.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, which owns the ship, issued a statement on its company website that read: “Our crew are trained to deal with unfolding weather situations and are best prepared and equipped to respond to emerging situations while at sea. TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico authorized the sailing knowing that the crew are more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather.”

Also, some maritime experts are raising questions about the ship’s age at 40 years, and whether it may have played a role in the sinking, while others are asking whether shipping schedules overrode safety concerns. Company officials, however, stressed that the ship was in good shape, regularly maintained and updated and had passed numerous Coast Guard inspections. The last inspection was on March 5 and 6. It was also inspected by the American Bureau of Shipping on Feb. 13. Also, the company emphasized that the ship was not in a rush to meet any deadline schedule.

El Faro, which means The Lighthouse in Spanish, had a crew of 33, of which 28 were Americans and five were from Poland. The captain, Michael Davidson of Maine, was a veteran. The ship was due to arrive in San Juan on Friday. We at Roanoke Trade join the maritime community in mourning the crewmembers who’ve lost their lives and extend our condolences to their families.



Sources: NY Times, Miami Herald, LA Times

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