Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Captain Blamed for Tragic End to RoRo/LoLo Cargo Ship Which Cost Thirty Three Lives

Vessel Operator Shares Responsibility for Inadequate Safety Measures
Shipping News Feature
US – After a 26-month review of the sinking of the US flagged RoRo/LoLo cargo vessel, El Faro in 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its final report placing the onus on the Captain whose failure to avoid sailing into Hurricane Joaquin, despite numerous opportunities to route a course away from hazardous weather, caused the death of all 33 aboard, with the vessel's operator, Tote, contributing to the sinking with poor oversight and inadequate safety management systems. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, commented:

“We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather. But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.”

On October 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin, the 790-foot, cargo vessel, El Faro, sank in the Atlantic Ocean en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The vessel was owned by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and operated by TOTE Services. Damages from the sinking were estimated at $36 million.

Before the loss of El Faro, the last comparable US maritime disaster, according to the NTSB, was the sinking of the US bulk carrier Marine Electric off the coast of Virginia in February 1983, in which all but three of the 34 persons aboard lost their lives.

NTSB investigators worked closely with the US military and federal and private sector partners to locate the wreckage, both photo and video document the ship and related debris field, and recover the El Faro’s voyage data recorder from more than 15,000 feet under the surface of the sea.

The ship departed Florida September 29, 2015, and had a range of navigation options that would have allowed it to steer clear of a storm that later became a Category 4 hurricane. The captain, consulting outdated weather forecasts and ignoring the suggestions of his bridge officers to take the ship farther south and away from the storm, ordered a course that intersected with the path of a hurricane that pounded the ship with 35-foot seas and 100 mph winds.

As the ship sailed into the outer bands of the storm, about five hours prior to the sinking, its speed decreased and it began to list to starboard due to severe wind and seas. In the last few hours of the voyage, the crew struggled to deal with a cascading series of events, any one of which could have endangered the ship on its own.

Seawater entered the ship through cargo loading and other openings on a partially enclosed deck in the ship’s hull, pooled on the starboard side and poured through an open hatch into a cargo hold. The hold began to fill with seawater, and automobiles in the hold broke free of lashings and likely ruptured a fire main pipe that could have allowed thousands of gallons of seawater per minute into the ship – faster than could be removed by bilge pumps.

About 90 minutes before the sinking, the listing ship lost its propulsion and was unable to manoeuvre, leaving it at the mercy of the sea. Although the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship when the sinking was imminent, the crew’s chances of survival were significantly reduced because the El Faro was equipped with life rafts and open uncovered lifeboats, which met requirements but were ineffective in hurricane conditions. Sumwalt added:

“Although El Faro and its crew should never have found themselves in such treacherous weather, that ship was not destined to sink. If the crew had more information about the status of the hatches, how to best manage the flooding situation, and the ship’s vulnerabilities when in a sustained list, the accident might have been prevented.”

As a result of the 26-month long investigation, the NTSB made 29 recommendations to the US Coast Guard, two to the Federal Communications Commission, one to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine to the International Association of Classification Societies, one to the American Bureau of Shipping, one to Furuno Electric Company and 10 to TOTE Services.