WASHINGTON — Conversations from the El Faro bridge released Tuesday indicate that the captain of the doomed cargo ship had outdated weather information and failed to heed requests of two crew members to change directions before it sank in a hurricane near the Bahamas in October 2015, taking 33 lives, including four mariners from Maine.
The release of the transcripts from the El Faro’s voyage data recorder by the National Transportation Safety Board sent some family members back to the day they learned their loved ones were lost at sea.
“It seems like ripping a Band-Aid off,” said Deb Roberts, the mother of Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, a 2012 Maine Maritime Academy graduate who was an assistant engineer for the vessel. “It feels like Oct. 1, 2015, all over again.”
The recorded bridge conversations indicate that Capt. Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham, a 1988 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, relied on weather forecasts that were six to eight hours old and that his second and third mates, who had more up-to-date weather information, contacted him three times the night of the storm about changing directions.
The NTSB said the captain had left the bridge at 8 p.m. and returned to it at 4:10 a.m., less than four hours before the ship’s last communication was transmitted on Oct. 1, 2015.
“While I haven’t read the entire thing, it’s more than 500 pages, what I got is that it solidifies the amount of professionalism with the crew,” Roberts said. “They were giving their all right up to the very end. Everybody did what was called for. They did not panic. They remained calm and stayed on their tasks at hand.
“Our loved ones were professionals,” she said. “They worked together and didn’t give up. They all did their jobs.”
Information from the recordings was among five reports added to the ongoing investigation and made public Tuesday. Also released was information about the weather, engineering and survival factors. Christopher A. Hart, NTSB chairman; Brian Curtis, director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety; and Jame Ritter, the board’s Research and Engineering director, spoke to the media Tuesday morning, explaining some of the conversations and sounds that could be heard on the recordings. The agency just presented the information as raw data and reached no conclusions.
“I would ask the general public to let them do their jobs and don’t pass judgment before it’s finished,” Roberts said of the ongoing investigation. “The NTSB was very clear that work still needs to be done.”
The ship’s voyage data recorder was recovered from about 15,000 feet on Aug. 8, and since then a group of NTSB experts have examined the audio from six microphones on the ship’s bridge to create the transcripts. They reviewed 26 hours of recordings, about 10 of which were pertinent to the investigation.
The El Faro left Jacksonville for Puerto Rico on Sept. 29, 2015. By the next day, a tropical storm had developed into Hurricane Joaquin. The last communication from the 790-foot steamship was made at 7:20 a.m. Oct. 1, 2015, when Davidson reported that the cargo carrier had lost propulsion and was listing by 15 degrees.
All the Maine residents working on El Faro were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. In addition to Davidson and Holland, they included Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland, a 2015 MMA graduate; and second mate Danielle Randolph, 34, a Rockland resident and 2004 MMA grad.
Another crew member, Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, New York, graduated from MMA in 2011.
Jennifer DeJoy, spokeswoman for MMA, declined Tuesday to comment on the information released by the NTSB.
The audio recordings begin at 5:37 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2015, eight hours after the ship departed Jacksonville, when the vessel was about 150 miles southwest of the city, Hart said at the news conference.
Davidson looked to the sky, which was a deep red, and used an old sailor’s rule of thumb.
“Oh, look at that red sky over there,” the captain said at 6:41 a.m. “Red in the morn’, sailors take warning. That is bright.”
Hart said, “That morning the captain and chief mate discussed the forecasted weather and agreed on a course … they believed would keep them clear of the eye of the storm.”
Third mate Jeremie Riehm and second mate Randolph contacted the captain three times on the night of the storm, the recordings indicate. The first call was made at 11:05 p.m. when the third mate called the captain to express concern about the route of the ship, and offered to do more research and provide an update, to which the captain agreed.
Riehm called back at 11:14 p.m. with the update and estimated that on the current course “by 4 a.m., they would be 22 miles from the center of the hurricane.”
The third mate “suggested they head south at 2 a.m. to get more distance,” Hart said. “After the phone call ended, the third mate said to another group member that the captain seemed to think they would be south of the storm and the wind would not be an issue.
“The planned course did not change.”
At 1:20 a.m., second mate Randolph called the captain and mentioned the weather and potentially altering the course south, Hart said, adding some of that recording is muffled.
“After the phone call ended, the second mate indicated to another crew member on the bridge that the captain wanted to stay on the planned course.”
By 2 a.m. crew members began discussing the pitch and roll of the ship.
“As the morning progressed, the sounds of objects, possibly cargo or structure, were heard shifting and falling in the vicinity of the bridge,” Hart said.
The captain returned to the bridge at 4:10 a.m. At 4:24 a.m. Davidson is heard saying, “We won’t be going through the eye” and a short time later he calls for more power. Only 12 minutes after the request for more power, the engineer rings the bridge with concerns about oil levels in the engine room and relays that the ship has a list. It’s learned there is flooding in the No. 3 hold and the crew begins pumping out the area.
At 5:03 a.m. Davidson can be heard talking about the conflicting weather reports from the ship’s onboard systems and the lack of visibility, which “was causing a problem on which way to steer.”
“We’re getting conflicting reports as to where the center of the storm is,” the captain said.
By 5:12 a.m., the alternate chief is heard saying the vessel has a severe starboard list and at 5:53 a.m. Davidson decided to turn the ship to try to offset the list and in hopes of getting a better look at what was causing the problem.
By 6:16 a.m. the engine died and the ship lost propulsion, and 2 minutes later the captain learned that water was entering the engine room through the ventilation. The next 45 minutes consists of conversations about the crew addressing the flooding and trying to restart the engines.
Davidson made a call to shore at 6:54 a.m. to report “everybody’s safe right now. We’re not going to abandon ship — we’re going to stay with the ship. We are in dire straits right now … There’s no need to ring the general alarm yet … the engineers are trying to get the plant back. So we’re working on it — OK?”
By 7:12 a.m the situation was bad enough that Davidson had Randolph issue the notice to abandon ship. She left the bridge at 7:29 a.m. to go get her lifejacket, and one for the captain and a helmsman who remained.
“Everybody — everybody. Get off. Get off the ship, stay together,” Davidson announced at 7:31 a.m.
The captain can be heard at 7:37 a.m. telling the helmsman “don’t freeze up” while the person asks for help repeatedly.
“You gonna leave me?” the helmsman asks at 7:38 a.m.
“I’m not leaving you,” Davidson responds. “Let’s go. [Helmsman’s name], let’s go. It’s time to come this way.”
The captain and the helmsman remained on the bridge until the ending of the 26-hour recording at 7:40 a.m. Oct. 1.
“This is the most heartwarming and heart-wrenching part,” Roberts said of the end of the transcripts. “The [helmsman] was struggling. [Davidson] said he was not going to leave him. It just demonstrates the professionalism of the captain.”