NTSB releases El Faro transcript, documents

Hours before TOTE Services‘ 790’ ro/ro containership El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin with all 33 crew, the ship’s mates twice suggested that captain Michael Davidson alter course as they sought to dodge the worst of the storm.

But Davidson stuck to the course they had plotted the evening before, confident the plot would take them south of the storm center on the morning of Oct. 1, 2015, according to voice recorder transcripts released Dec. 12 by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The 500-page transcript from the recovered ship’s voyage data recorder — the longest transcript ever compiled by the agency — was among five “factual reports” made public in the NTSB’s accident investigation docket.

“It contains no analysis,” NTSB chairman Christopher Hart told reporters at a Washington, D.C. press briefing. “These steps are yet to come.”

Recovered from wreckage 15,000’ deep off the Bahamas, the El Faro voyage data recorder contained 26 hours of information, including crew conversations recorded on the bridge.

“We’ll be passing clear on the backside of it. Just keep steamin’ our speed is tremendous right now,” Davidson is quoted in the transcript shortly before 8 p.m. on Sept. 30. “The faster we’re going the better. This will put the wind on the stern a little more. It’s giving us a push.”

After the captain left the bridge, the transcript shows crew members discussing the storm.

“I’m not going to second-guess somebody,” one of the mates said. “The guy’s been through a lot worse than this. He’s been sailing for a long, long time. He did this up in Alaska.”

But in phone calls to the captain in his stateroom around 11 p.m. and again at 1 a.m. that night, the mates suggested altering course, calculating that they could get as close as 22 miles from the storm center by 4 a.m.

At 4:37 a.m. the chief engineer reported the ship’s starboard list was affecting oil levels in the engine room, and the ship soon lost power. Over the next two hours the crew struggled to right the ship and pump out flooding in one of the holds.

After sending distress calls, Davidson at 7:27 a.m. sounded the general alarm and directed the crew to prepare to abandon ship. In the last minutes before the recording ended amid heavy rumbling at 7:39 a.m., Davidson and a single crewman were still on the bridge, with the captain urging him on.

“I’m a goner,” the seaman said.

‘No you’re not,” Davidson yelled back.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

3 Comments

  1. Captain Claire Kern on

    Maybe the moral of this story is simple: listen to your crew. I had a ship/tugboat wreck where we lost the boat and barge going out an inlet in Florida (High Queen wreck) and the mate saw it coming but the captain (me) chugged on. I lost everything but we survived. I owned and operated the boat. I was the only female owner/operator of tugboats in the world at that time. Tough business!

  2. Never, ever charge or try to outrun a hurricane. You’re playing craps against mother nature, even with a 900′ vessel. They’re too unpredictable and when something goes wrong (M/E failure, someone goes overboard), the error chain starts. This is the worst case scenario that they will be using as a teaching aid in maritime schools from here on out. Sad and should of been avoided. There is no room for complacency and ego while sailing.

  3. John, I totally agree to your comment. As a maritime Captain, I have put my myself and my crew in bad positions and realized later that I was a mechanical failure away from incident. Thank God nothing happened. Facts are if you are running something this large, there will always be times that you REQUIRE full mechanical cooperation to prevent an incident. But NEVER sure death. Sad….

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