The captain of the El Faro informed the cargo ship’s parent company that he intended to avoid the predicted path of a hurricane, but the vessel was only about 20 miles from the eye of the storm and taking on water from a breached hull when contact with it was lost, according to an updated report on the sinking issued by the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday.
The 790-foot El Faro sank Oct. 1 with a crew of 33, including five Maine Maritime Academy graduates, in the worst shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.
The U.S. Coast Guard lost contact with the ship at about 7:20 a.m. Oct. 1, as the El Faro headed from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, battling through Hurricane Joaquin. The Coast Guard had received electronic distress signals from the ship, but had no voice contact, according to the NTSB on Tuesday.
In a recorded satellite phone call to the emergency call center of TOTE Maritime, the ship’s parent company , at 7 a.m. Oct. 1, Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham told the operator he had a maritime emergency. He reported there was a hull breach, a scuttle had blown open and there was water in hold No. 3, according to the NTSB. A scuttle is a hatch or port.
Davidson also said the ship had lost its main propulsion unit, and the engineers could not get it going. The captain estimated the seas to be 10 to 12 feet at that time, according to the report.
The NTSB update Tuesday indicated the ship had passed mechanical and safety inspections earlier this year. It also stated TOTE was modifying the ship for a planned change in its route to the Pacific between Washington and Alaska and that welding and mechanical work was being done during the voyage.
The report stated one of the ship’s boilers had been shut down in September during a run between San Juan and Jacksonville. Both boilers were subsequently inspected by an independent boiler company and were due to be serviced during an upcoming drydock in November. But the ship remained in service.
Interviews with relief crews and company officials indicated weekly safety drills were conducted on the ship, including lifeboat drills involving all on board.
The report also pointed out a marine hurricane warning was issued three hours before El Faro left port in Jacksonville at about 8 p.m. Sept. 29.
On Sept. 30, the day before the ship sank, Davidson sent an email to a company safety official saying he intended to steer the ship south of the storm’s path, avoiding its center by 65 miles. But electronic data showed the ship’s last known position to be about 20 miles from the eye of the hurricane before contact was lost.
The U.S. Coast Guard called off the search for survivors on Oct. 7. Remains of one unidentified crew member were found.
In addition to the 53-year-old captain, the El Faro crew included Maine Maritime graduates Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York, a 2011 graduate; Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, a 2005 graduate and the ship’s second mate; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, a 2012 graduate; and Dylan Meklin, 23, who graduated from Rockland High School in 2010 and from Maine Maritime in May.
The U.S. Navy began a salvage operation on Monday. A Navy ocean tug vessel, the Apache, left from Little Creek, Virginia, to recover the ship’s voyage data recorder, similar to the black box on airplanes, which preserves the last 12 hours of engine orders and communications from the bridge.
The Apache is equipped with a “hydrophone” underwater device that can detect pulses emitted by the voyage data recorder, as well as an Orion sonar system able to locate large objects, such as shipwrecks. The Apache is expected to arrive Saturday at the site where the ship is believed to have sunk, according to the NTSB. The search is expected to last at least two weeks.
The sinking has spawned legal action by the families of some of the crew members.
The widow of a man presumed dead after the ship sank will sue parent company TOTE Maritime, The Florida Times-Union reported Monday.
Tina Riehm, the widow of third mate Jeremie Riehm, will sue on behalf of his estate, according to the report.
This is the second suit filed since the El Faro disappeared.
Last week, Florida attorney Willie Gary announced that the family of crew member Lonnie Jourdan would sue parent companies Tote Maritime of Puerto Rico and TOTE Services Inc., as well as Davidson, for “gross negligence.” That suit seeks $100 million in damages.
Riehm’s suit does not name Davidson, according to The Florida Times-Union.
Riehm’s attorney, Steve Pajcic, has not specified what he will seek in damages.
Pajcic said Monday he was “shocked” the companies had not already “at a minimum offered up” the amount the ship was insured for to the families.
Reuters, Bangor Daily News editor Michael J. Dowd and BDN writer Beth Brogan contributed to this report.