El Faro images offer view of tragedy

By Jerry Fraser, WorkBoat publisher

 

Most always, they will tell you after a tragedy such as the sinking of the El Faro, it was a chain of events.

In all likelihood the loss of the 40-year-old containership in October, with all 33 crewmembers, was no exception.

First, the El Faro ran into weather worse than forecast. It happens, but still, strike one. Then the ship lost power. Turbines are very reliable, but alas, not infallible. Strike two. Side-to, the ship started taking on water. 

Strike three?

We don’t know.

Certainly we did not expect to learn that the top two decks came off the ship – or to see them on prime-time TV courtesy of “60 Minutes.” One explanation might be that increasing air pressure within the vessel as the El Faro sank through the fathoms sheared the upper decks off. But for now we cannot be certain whether this sealed the vessel’s fate or simply accompanied it. It seems likely that the ship’s voyage data recorder (VDR) will have the answer – if it can be found.

I fished for a living, but I cannot imagine what it must have been like aboard the El Faro on its last day.

Many of us know the risks. In my salad days I, like many Maine fishermen, trawled with an inshore lobster boat that could not shed water from the deck any faster than a pair of 2 1/2″ scuppers would permit it to drain. We fished in up to 25 knots of wind and sometimes got caught in a little bit more, and when it was snotty we knew that if we lost the engine we could lose the boat as well. We managed the risk to the extent we were able by working within 15 or 20 miles of shore and watching the weather closely.

On fishing vessels designed for trawling the weather is less worrisome than it is on lobster-boat draggers. Fishing vessels are not invulnerable, far from it, but acceptance of weather is part of the life. As an old Maine fishermen told me long ago: “Weather is an inconvenience.”

In other words, suck it up.

Of course, he was talking about a gale of wind (upward of 34 knots), not a Category 4 hurricane (upward of 113 knots) such as the El Faro encountered. As a practical matter, a gale at sea is no big deal – the old Gloucester fishing smacks were at their best under full sail in 50 knots of wind, we’re told.

A hurricane is a different story. A hurricane may not be the first link in the accident chain, but it is certainly shackled to it.

Is there anything more haunting than seeing a ship at rest on the sea floor? I suppose if it’s some pirate ship of yore the mood might lighten a little, but if you’ve spent any time at sea it’s not long before long you ask yourself the central questions: “Who were these guys?” and “What was it like?”

The El Faro is no ship of yore. It’s a ship of October, of three months ago.

After several weeks of searching, the National Transportation Safety Board suspended the search for the El Faro‘s VDR. The lead investigator in the El Faro probe called it “the most difficult and complex” of his career, adjectives the families of the El Faro’s crew probably would not dispute. In light of such sentiment, and in light of the images and video released last weekend, the NTSB would be well advised to resume its search for the VDR, nor only for the El Faro families, but for the family of seamen everywhere.

 

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