Gregory “Scooby” Melvin saw Hurricane Joaquin’s angry swirl of clouds on the TV and heard all the concern about it heading eventually to the U.S. coast. But he had more immediate worries: What about the El Faro?
He knew the cargo ship well. He had worked its Jacksonville-to-Puerto Rico route as a steward, making meals for hungry mariners. And he knew it was down there, somewhere near or in that storm.
He thought of the men and the women he knew on the El Faro, and he thought of steward Theodore Quammie. He and Quammie were friends, shipmates, for more than 30 years. Weeks before, Melvin was assigned to the El Faro, but he gave up that slot at the request of a friend and instead went to Europe. The friend then traded it to Quammie, who’d wanted to stay close to home.
Melvin looked at the storm on the TV in his comfortable Jacksonville home: That could have been me, he thought.
He’d been in bad storms before. Any merchant mariner has. It’s part of their lot. And he knew the fear that could hit you.
“You are small,” he said. “You are totally at the mercy of the sea.”
This storm was big, and it ravaged much of the central Bahamas as it stubbornly, slowly lumbered through the archipelago. As it set a collision course for the El Faro, its devastation would spread to the hearts of people across Florida. In New England. Even in Poland.
At Bog Hollow Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts, there will be no more school field trips this year to learn about cranberry farming or excursions to the pumpkin patch. The farm’s owners are the parents of Jeffrey Mathias, 42, a father of three and a marine engineer aboard the El Faro.
On their website, after their son’s ship went silent in the middle of the hurricane, they asked Bog Hollow customers to be understanding: “Due to family circumstances beyond our control we will be closed the rest of the calendar year.”
Due to family circumstances beyond our control.
Tuesday, Sept. 29
At The Weather Channel in Atlanta, tropical weather expert Michael Lowry had been tracking what would become Joaquin for a week or more. Early forecasts predicted it would stay weak, perhaps just a depression, and move north.
“That was on Sunday, Sunday night into Monday,” Lowry said. “Then the models changed their tune.”
Wind shear relaxed and the storm moved southwest, toward warm Bahamian waters. A northerly turn was expected eventually. Could it hit the U.S.? Perhaps. That was the big worry. But what about the Bahamas? Were they ready? Lowry wondered.
By Tuesday, though, Joaquin was “incredibly difficult” to forecast, Lowry knew this: It was headed for the Bahamas, and it was only going to get stronger.
At 5 p.m., it was a tropical storm, with 65 mph winds.
Meanwhile in Jacksonville, under calm skies, the El Faro crew members prepared for their weekly trip to Puerto Rico. Their ship, looming overhead, was impressively large: 790 feet long, a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship, meaning vehicles and cargo can be driven directly onto it through giant doors. On this trip, it would carry 391 containers topside and 294 cars, trucks and trailers below deck.
Officials at TOTE Services Inc., which owned the ship, planned to soon replace it on the Jacksonville-Puerto Rico run with a new vessel being built in San Diego. The El Faro, at 40 years old, would be taken to Alaska to work some more.
But the El Faro, whose name means “the lighthouse” in Spanish, had at least a few more runs to Puerto Rico left on its schedule. That evening, it left on its 1,300-mile voyage, a well-traveled route taken by different companies every week.
The El Faro, captained by Michael Davidson, a native of Maine who’d gone to sea as a teenager, had a crew of 32. Twenty-seven were Americans, about half of whom had ties to the Jacksonville area. Five were Polish mariners preparing to retrofit the engine room for the El Faro’s next life in Alaska.
Merchant mariners consider the Jacksonville to Puerto Rico run a good assignment. They can stay close to home, unlike trips to Asia and Europe, which keep them away for months at a time. Top priority goes to the most experienced members of the Seafarers International Union — those with at least eight years at sea.
As the El Faro prepared to sail that evening, merchant mariner Frank Hamm III sent a text to his daughter, Destiny Sparrow, who at 22 is the oldest of his four children.
“I’m on my way over now. I’m driving. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replied.
She heard no more from her dad.
Wednesday, Sept. 30
By 8 a.m., Joaquin was a Category 1 hurricane, with winds at 75 mph, moving southwest toward the central Bahamas. The National Weather Service issued several more hurricane warnings that day, each noting the storm’s growth.
On the El Faro, Davidson filed his daily noon report. He said he was monitoring the hurricane’s track, TOTE execs said. He understood what was ahead of him, but weather conditions, he reported, looked favorable.
Davidson also spoke by radio that day with the captain of a sister ship, the El Yunque, as it passed within a few miles on its journey back to Jacksonville. That changed nothing in the El Faro’s plan, company officials later said, which was to stay a safe distance from the worst of the storm.
That plan failed.
Reuters later examined the ship’s tracking data, which uses a ship’s satellite transmissions to follow its location and speed. The news service reported that the El Faro, sailing near full speed throughout the day, became trapped between the path of the storm — which kept shifting toward it — and the Bahamas to the ship’s west.
The El Faro had a chance to slip westward at 5 p.m. through the gap in the Bahama Islands known as “Hole in the Wall,” taking it farther from the storm, Reuters said. But it sped right past it.
After that, the report said, it was on a “collision course” with the storm.
By 11 p.m., Joaquin, gorging on the warm Bahamian waters, had exploded into a Category 3 storm. Winds were 115 mph.
On the El Faro, first engineer Keith Griffin was thinking about his wife, Katie, that day. She is pregnant with twins, and they planned to learn their gender when he returned. She told The Boston Globe that when they spoke on the phone that night, he told her the storm was getting worse. But he had confidence in the ship and crew.
“He said it was going to be a stormy night, and he wouldn’t get much sleep. And then he told me he loved me,” Katie Griffin said.
Thursday, Oct. 1
“There is a hurricane out here and we are headed straight into it. Category 3. Winds are super bad and seas are not great. Love to everyone.”
Danielle Randolph, second mate on the El Faro, sent that email to her mother, Laurie Bobillot, that morning, according to the Bangor Daily News from the merchant mariner’s home state of Maine.
At 5 a.m., Joaquin’s winds reached 120 mph.
Sometime early that morning, something happened that doomed the El Faro. In the middle of the hurricane, for reasons still unknown to those left behind, the engines stopped working.
Without propulsion, the ship was at the storm’s mercy.
Shortly after 7 a.m., after leaving a voicemail with TOTE, Davidson got through on his second call to the company’s safety office. His voice was calm as he described the situation. The engines were disabled and the ship was listing at 15 degrees. Water was coming into the ship through a hatch that had popped open, but the crew managed to pump it out, the message said.
Minutes later, the shipping company contacted the Coast Guard to report the El Faro’s dire straits.
The ship, which was near Crooked Island, Bahamas, in the center of the storm, was never heard from again.
Most likely what happened next will never be known. Yet it’s clear that a bad situation — a powerful hurricane and monstrous seas — would be made catastrophic by the loss of engine power, Joseph Murphy, a ship’s captain who teaches at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said a few days later.
With power, the El Faro could have been steered into waves to minimize their effect. Without power, though, the waves would have slammed into El Faro from any direction and tilted it more, perhaps dislodging some of the hundreds of cargo containers lashed in place, destabilizing the ship even more.
Murphy said the ship probably lost all power after its last message. More water would have flowed in, pulling the vessel lower and probably rolling it at sharper and sharper angles.
The ship had two lifeboats, each capable of holding 43 people. Using them, though, would become nearly impossible if the ship rolled so steeply. One would have been slapping into waves, while the higher one couldn’t be lowered from such a steep angle.
And it would have been hellish on deck for anyone trying to get off the sinking ship. Winds of 120 mph or more. Seas at 50 feet. Visibility zero.
It may have taken just minutes, Murphy said, for the cargo ship to disappear under the waves, headed for the ocean’s floor — which at that spot is 15,000 feet deep, nearly 3 miles down.
The Coast Guard quickly launched an HC-130 search and rescue plane from Clearwater. Two Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft tried to make radio contact with the ship but heard nothing. Given the storm’s ferocity, they couldn’t fly low enough to see the ship either.
By 2 p.m., Joaquin grew even more, into a Category 4 storm with winds of 130 mph.
Around that time, TOTE set up a website where families could get regular updates on the ship, but information was scarce.
Questions were many.
Murphy, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy professor, once regularly worked the Jacksonville-to-Puerto Rico route. He writes study guides called “Murphy Books” for ship’s officer’s tests. The Monday after the disappearance of the El Faro, he said he was not betting on investigators making any significant revelations about right or wrong. People at sea can act reasonably and still have terrible things happen.
“There’s no smoking gun,” he said.
As another veteran ship’s captain told the Associated Press: “Sometimes circumstances overwhelm you.”
Friday, Oct. 2
Joaquin completed a U-turn that, if the El Faro were somehow still afloat, would have kept it right over the troubled ship.
“The vessel is disabled basically right near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin,” Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said in Miami.
Rescuers headed out in helicopters, airplanes and cutters.
The hurricane hunters took to the air again.
The search was called off as night fell and the hurricane, barely moving and still packing 125 mph winds, kept pummeling the Bahamas. The search covered about 1,110 square miles, the Coast Guard said.
Nothing had been found. At first light Saturday, they’d look again.
Families of ship’s crew tried to find hope.
Theresa Davidson, the captain’s wife, told the Daily Mail of London: “My husband is extremely capable, he has extensive training. … If anyone can handle a situation like that, it’s my husband.”
Saturday, Oct. 3
Rescuers still combed the Atlantic, battling gusts of 100 knots or more as Joaquin began moving north. Fedor, from the Coast Guard, said the planes came back battered.
Finally, a clue, a tiny sign that the El Faro had passed this way. Searchers found a life ring from the ship, about 120 miles northeast of Crooked Island, or 70 miles from the vessel’s last known location.
Distraught family members gathered at Seafarers International Union hall off Belfort Road in Jacksonville. Many traveled far.
Andrew Dabrowski had come to Jacksonville, fearing for his nephew, Piotr Krause, one of the Polish engineers. “Every day you hope and hope,” he said in a strong accent. “Three days, nothing message. Nobody knows. Too many questions, but nothing answered.”
Sunday, Oct. 4
In Jacksonville, the vigil continued. Searchers found debris and an oil slick believed to be from the El Faro, but news was still agonizingly incomplete.
Mary Shevory, who was staying at a hotel nearby, walked to the union hall and readily stopped for reporters. She wanted to tell the story of her daughter, of the adventurous spirit that led her to the El Faro.
Mariette Wright was 51. As a teenager, she fell in love with the sea and shipped out for the first time at 18. She never stopped.
“She always wanted to be out and in the action from the time she was born,” Shevory said. “Nothing scared her.”
Monday, Oct. 5
Fedor, at a 10 a.m. news briefing, summed up the situation in seven simple words: “We are assuming the vessel has sank.”
Since the ship’s last radio call the previous Thursday morning, the Coast Guard searched close to 215,000 square miles. It concentrated Monday on the area northeast of Crooked Island.
The ocean began to offer up more signs of the El Faro.
One mariner was found dead in a survival suit, but he or she could not be identified. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer was lowered from a helicopter but had to leave the body in the water — a “gut-wrenching decision,” a Coast Guard spokesman said — because rescue crews were running out of daylight and hoped to find survivors nearby.
Searchers also found a heavily damaged, unoccupied lifeboat, an empty survival suit, a partially submerged life raft, life jackets, life rings and cargo containers.
In coastal Rockland, Maine, hometown of mariners Dylan Meklin, 23, and Danielle Randolph, 34, more than 200 people gathered downtown Monday, The Courier-Gazette and The Camden Herald said.
They said the Lord’s Prayer and sang “Amazing Grace,” held up candles, hugged and wept.
Meklin’s aunt, Deborah Dyer, urged the crowd: “Please mingle, please be happy, please tell stories. We need to hear the good things. We just want to channel the love and all the hope we can so they can know that we’re here.”
Many family members were not there in Rockland. They’d gone to Jacksonville, to be closer to the people they love.
Late afternoon, relatives of those on the El Faro began arriving at the union hall for a family meeting at 7 p.m., during which TOTE company officials would update them on the search.
Orange cones blocked the media from entering the parking lot. But as family members drove up, reporters signaled to see whether they would stop. Some sped up to get into the parking lot, while others slowed and rolled their windows down.
That was a signal for reporters to thrust TV cameras, boom mics, notepads and recorders at them. Some seemed overwhelmed. Some seemed to find it comforting to talk about their missing loved ones.
And some asked: Why sail into a hurricane?
Was the captain under pressure to keep on schedule?
Was the ship too old? Was it unsafe?
Why did this happen?
Late in the evening, TOTE officials held a news conference at the union hall. The inevitable question came: Why was the ship allowed to sail into a developing hurricane?
Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO, said “the storm was nowhere near what it became when the ship left port.”
Company officials said that Davidson, the captain, planned to bypass or outrun Joaquin — a “sound plan” — before engine problems left the ship adrift.
They said they were not trying to blame the captain for what happened. “We put tremendous trust in our captains and our crews … but in the end the responsibility comes to me,” Chiarello said.
Tuesday, Oct. 6
The mourning continued. Hundreds attended a vigil in Castine, Maine, at Maine Maritime Academy, the alma mater of several mariners on the ship, while at 3 p.m., mariners union halls across the country observed a moment of silence for those lost.
The investigation, meanwhile, began, as a team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Jacksonville. Their target: Finding the ship’s voyage data recorder, similar to the black box recorder on an airplane. But it, like so much else, had vanished.
In Florida, Katie Griffin, wife of missing first engineer Keith Griffin, went to the doctor and learned that their twin babies are girls.
“I should be happy,” she would tell People magazine, “but the fact that I’m not going to be able to share my two little girls with him is heartbreaking.”
Wednesday, Oct. 7
As the sun set over the Bahamas, the Coast Guard ceded to the inevitable: It called off its search.
“They did all they could,” Fedor said.
The news shook some family members.
“How could you let it go just after a couple of days?” a distraught Marlena Porter said. Her husband, James, was on the El Faro, as was his cousin, Jackie Jones.
She couldn’t give up hope. Not just yet. “I feel like someone is still out there,” she said.
An NTSB official in Jacksonville said that if the El Faro is located, remotely operated vehicles can retrieve its voyage data recorder, even at great depths. Even at 15,000 feet. The device has a battery life of about 30 days.
At the same media briefing, Fedor, from the Coast Guard, had something to say. It was about the concern the El Faro family members had shown to those searching for the ship.
“So many of them came up to us … and said, ‘How are you doing, how are you getting through this?’ And I couldn’t believe that they would do that. It’s just inspiring to see people of courage like that; they’re obviously going through a grieving process. Again, these are professional mariners who were lost. Those are our kin. We make our living at sea, too. We’ve been baptized in the same salt waters.”
Thursday, Oct. 8
Military search-and-rescue units from Jacksonville, Clearwater, Key West and St. Petersburg had looked. Units from North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia and New York had looked. Three tugs hired by the shipping company had looked.
Over six days, crews searched more than 230,000 square miles of water. No signs of life.
Each crew member on a ship such as the El Faro is issued a bright orange survival suit called a Gumby, designed to offer flotation and protection from cold water. Even in the suits, mariners could survive only four or five days, even in warm water.
That limit had long been passed.
Some family members tried to find reason to believe. After all, one lifeboat was found, damaged and empty. But that means there is still one lifeboat somewhere out there.
Despair and hope coursed through a night vigil near JaxPort as more than 100 people shielded candles from the strong wind coming off the water. Afterward, as the crowd began to leave, Carla Newkirk’s tears dried as she told stories of her father, Larry Davis of Jacksonville, a mariner on the El Faro.
He’d followed his father into a life on the sea. He knows the sea, she said, and so do those with him. She can just picture him with his friends, gathered around a fire on a beach somewhere, waiting to get picked up.
Her dad, she said, is a real character, always the life of the party, and boy, that will be some party they throw when he comes home.
Times-Union writers Joe Daraskevich, Tessa Duvall, Derek Gilliam, Andrew Pantazi, Steve Patterson, Jim Schoettler, Rhema Thompson and Dana Treen contributed to this story.
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