Flooding in a cargo hold, 70 to 90 knot winds and a heavy list doomed the ro/ro containership El Faro and its crew of 33 when it sank in Hurricane Joaquin, according to a Coast Guard Marine Safety Center report examined in this week’s third round of testimony before the marine board of inquiry into the sinking.
Board members also heard about wastage and painted-over corrosion in ventilation stacks on the El Faro’s sistership, El Yuque, that was missed in earlier surveys and first flagged by Coast Guard inspectors in February 2016.
El Yuque was transferred from TOTE Maritime’s Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, service to take on TOTE’s Pacific Northwest route between Washington State and Alaska. But the corrosion problems discovered by inspectors with Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound instead led to a decision to scrap the 40-year-old vessel.
Capt. David Flaherty, chief traveling inspector for the Coast Guard, told the board the Coast Guard had no evidence of similar wastage in the El Faro’s stacks. But he agreed with questioning board members that such damage could hasten water ingress from the stacks.
The vents were one likely flooding source identified in a report by Jeffrey W. Stetler, a naval architect for the Marine Safety Bureau, in a “stability and structures” report prepared for the board. That paper included analyses of the 790’ El Faro’s stability and likely scenarios for its sinking.
In terms of stability, the El Faro’s metacentric height — a measure of stability, expressed as GM — met the 1990 Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) standard at 3.1’, Stetler reported. However, if a comparable vessel were built in 2016 the current GM standard would be 5.8’, Stetler wrote.
El Faro had lost power and was drifting in the most dangerous northwest quadrant of the hurricane, north-northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas, when it sank around 7:35 a.m. Oct. 1, 2015. According to communications and voyage data recorder transcripts reviewed by investigators and the board, the crew was fighting to restart the power plant, deal with flooding the ship’s Hold No. 3, and a 15-degree list.
In a call to TOTE shore side management, El Faro captain Michael Davidson had reported a blown scuttle was involved in the hold flooding, and that efforts were underway to pump it out. In the Marine Safety Center analysis, that water would have a major effect on ship stability through free surface effect — the weight of water sloshing across the full-beam hold, combined with sustained winds of 70 to 90 knots and waves of 25’ to 30’.
In that scenario, wind heel and flooding of Hold 3 would have pushed the ship over enough for the other holds to begin flooding through port side vent openings, leading to a loss of stability and a partial capsize, the report states. A collapse of container stacks on deck would have arrested the ship from a full capsize, as it continued to flood through the port vents and finally sink.
While the El Faro “met applicable intact and damage stability and strength requirements” for a vessel its age, the ship was operating “with minimal stability margin, with limited ballast capacity and available freeboard, leaving little flexibility,” the report concluded. It was “vulnerable to progressive flooding through cargo hold ventilation openings,” and “unlikely to survive even single‐compartment compartment flooding of Hold 3 with combined 70‐90 knot winds and 25‐30 foot seas,” the report said.
The board questioned captains Phil Anderson and Edward Walker, Jr. of the National Cargo Bureau on their assessment of how cargo lashings were applied on the TOTE ships. While they could not say for certain that lashings contributed to cargo instability of the El Faro’s ro/ro trailers, a failure could have create a cascade effect of shifting trailers on the vehicle deck.
In testimony Wednesday, former El Faro chief engineer Mark Gay told board members about his experience with the engine lubrication system. The investigation is looking into possible causes of the main engine shutdown.
“I never had any issues with oil in heavy weather,” other than variances in pressure, Gay said. Board members questioned how the system would respond in steep heeling conditions that Davidson reported before the sinking.