Journalist: What Sunk El Faro And How She Could Have Been Saved

May 3, 2018

Relying on hundreds of exclusive interviews with family members and maritime experts, as well as the words of the crew members themselves — whose conversations were captured by the ship’s data recorder — journalist Rachel Slade unravels the mystery of the 2015 sinking of El Faro in her new book “Into The Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm And The Sinking Of El Faro.”

Slade appeared on Maine Public’s call-in show Maine Calling on Thursday, along with Charles Baird, former second mate of the El Faro.

For more information about Slade, and for upcoming events — including in Maine — visit rachelslade.net.

Interview Highlights

On Writing The Book

Slade: “I had no idea how complicated this story was going to be. It wasn’t just about the ship. It was about what kinds of people serve on the ships that serve us. Shipping is the backbone of a global economy, and these people are out there risking their lives every day. I wanted to make a connection with our mariners, with the people who are actually doing the work to keep that global economy moving, and they’re out there, they’re there right off shore. I live in Boston, I live in Maine, I see the ships. I wanted to know who they were.

“When I first got involved, it was a sunken ship and it was devastated families and it was mariners like Baird who were still on shore. The tapes came nine months after the ship had sunk, and the story of recovering those tapes is amazing. This is the longest black box recording that we have ever rescued. It’s 26 hours. This is unprecedented, so much information, so much dialogue to go through on that bridge.”

On El Faro’s Age And Condition

Slade: “The ships that Baird was serving on were 40 years old. We don’t have 40-year-old cars anymore on the road. They’re considered antiques. These ships were built very well, but the technology on them was very old. The steel was old. All the moving parts were old. They required a tremendous amount of upkeep. You can no longer order parts for that ship. The guys were actually using scrapped pieces from scrapped ships to fix the engine, to fix parts. This was a desperate situation. When you step on newer ships, for the guys who work on them, this would be inconceivable.

Credit http://www.rachelslade.net/

“El Faro was not designed as a container ship. She was not designed to carry containers, which means she had a very different profile. Her hull was slim, she had narrow hips, she was designed for speed and she was designed for trailers to roll on and go down into her massive holds, which meant she was designed to carry the weight low. Now we have these megaships that can carry 20,000 containers at one time. When containerization took over in the mid ’70s the El Faro was modified. Now she’s carrying weight differently — she’s got containers up high, she’s got trailers down below, but she still has that profile that’s quite narrow. As mariners would say she was ‘tender,’ which means that she was very responsive to changes in wind and waves, and steering changes, whereas these large container ships now are chubby and much more stable.

“There were so many things kind of working against the ship that it’s kind of amazing that an accident hadn’t happened before. All of those things worked in tandem to sink the ship, and in fact, when I was working on the book my working title in my head was, ‘How Many Bad Decisions Does It Take To Sink A Ship?’ And the answer is I think in the thousands. It takes a lot of work to sink a ship.”

On Working Aboard The El Faro

Slade: “This is a regular three-day run back and forth to Puerto Rico — it’s hectic, they load, they get underway, they get down to Puerto Rico, they unload. I mean it’s just constant movement. People are exhausted. And you can tell when you’re reading the transcript of the recording how tired and exhausted the people are on the ship. It’s actually very upsetting to read because you can only imagine that they’re not functioning with all pistons firing.”

Baird: “You’re gone for a minimum of two months. With Tote, it was 70 days on, 70 days off, which was great. Everybody loved that, because you weren’t gone so long, and it’s stressful, it’s work. You’re up all the time, especially in port. We’d get to sea and we’d relax. That’s when we would rest up. But in port, we were going around the clock loading cargo. The ship doesn’t make any money sitting at the dock. When it’s underway, getting the cargo to the next port, that’s when they’re making money. That’s when you can actually relax. It’s like a car on the Turnpike — you put the speed control on and sit back and steer. Same thing with a big ship. Once you leave port and make departure everything’s automatic until you get maybe 10 miles from your landing port, then you put everything back on manual.”

Slade: “Technology has improved communications, but on El Faro there were times, literally days, where you would be out of touch. You could e-mail, but those e-mails went in batches when the captain decided to upload or download information. If you had children, if you had a new spouse, if you had an ailing parent, you’re out of touch. In some ways that can be attractive. But it’s also a burden, you’re away and that’s your job. It’s a special kind of person who decides that they’d like their life to be that way.”

On Lead Up To The Disaster

Slade: “This is a what they call a ‘milk run.’ It was a very typical run this company has been doing this for decades. Nothing has ever happened. So the company was not tracking the ships and was not terribly involved in decision making, and that had worked for decades. Other shipping companies are much more involved with their ships — this company was not. They don’t have to be. But from my perspective, if your whole company is built around logistics, then you should be very involved with where those ships are and how decisions are being made.

“Capt. Michael Davidson, at about 10 a.m. the day before the ship went down, sent an email to the shipping company saying, ‘We’ve changed our course a little bit, but I think we’re going to get in on time. And I’d like to take the Old Bahama Channel back, which means we’re going to be a little bit later, we’re going to be running a little bit slower, just wanted you to know.’ And it took literally six hours for anybody to respond to that email.

“There was hubris involved, ‘We can handle this. The ship can handle this. We are solid crew or brave crew. We’re going to be OK.’ This had not happened, and was in their lifetimes almost unprecedented. You just never think that you’re going to be the one. You never think that you’re going to be on that one ship that goes down. The awesomeness of Mother Nature cannot be comprehended until you find yourself right in the middle of it. Men and women who have been caught in hurricanes will never do that again.”

On The Pressure Master Mariners Are Subject To

Slade: “The master’s job is to balance the economic needs of the company — what people are saying in the office versus the realities of being out at sea alone, subject to the vagaries of Mother Nature. It’s two completely different ways of thinking, and a master could lose his or her job for making a wrong decision. Either putting the ship in jeopardy, or coming into port late and costing possibly $500,000, so I can’t imagine the pressures, and it takes a very strong person to be able to say no we’re taking the safe route.

“Don’t forget that mutiny was punishable by death until the 20th century. So mutiny is very serious. What we had were officers who could see what was happening, who tried to warn the captain using every resource they could: cajoling, humor, flat out alarm trying to convince the captain that that they were heading for something big, and unfortunately in that case it was impossible to to move him.”

Baird: “There’s communication between your captain, your chief mate, second mate and third mate. However, the final decision is always up to the captain, and once he’s made his decision there is no way that I know of that would change that decision. Onboard the ship, the captain is God, and if he makes that decision there’s just no way you can defer from it. He made his decision and then you just deal with it. That’s the way we were trained in school and that’s the way we were trained on the job.”

On The Disaster’s Aftermath

Slade: “Tote Maritime was fined. It’s from my perspective a nominal amount of money. They also settled with all of the families, $500,000. In admiralty laws it limited to the value of the ship, which divided among all the mariners ended up being half a million dollars each as a settlement fee, plus some undisclosed amount. So we don’t know how much each family received, but they lost somebody, so that’s irreplaceable, and Tote goes on. That’s how American business works. I’m not saying anything against Tote. Their job is to serve their clients, and I am sure that they’re being much more careful at this point.

“There were three rounds of hearings, two weeks each, and a whole litany of Tote executives, officers and office staff testified under oath in front of the Marine Board. There were massive amounts of testimony, and I directly quote from them in the book so that readers can clearly understand their position and their behavior during and after the accident.

“We all need to know that developing countries in Asia — China, Thailand, Korea — heavily subsidize their shipping industry. They threw a huge amount of money to port building, to shipbuilding and into transporting goods because they understand that moving goods from their countries to the United States, to Europe is how they finance their world, and it’s the same here. I find it appalling that we just forget about our ships and we forget about our mariners and we assume that everything is just going to be OK.

“Regulating shipping is very difficult. We’re talking about basically changing laws, and the laws are the Coast Guard’s purview. They set the regulations and then they have to carry those out. The Coast Guard is working very closely with the shipping industry. They don’t want to put too many economic or financial burdens on the shipping industry — the lifeblood of America is moving things around, and so it’s a delicate balance. But the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board came up with a list of recommendations, and the Coast Guard side had about 70 recommended changes in the existing regulations that would make shipping safer. One of the big ones is getting these open lifeboats off of these ships. They have been illegal since 1980, for hulls built after 1986. Any ship built after 1986 now has to have enclosed lifeboats. I would argue that those mariners might have had a fighting chance if they had enclosed lifeboats on El Faro.”

On The Victims

Baird: “They were all professionals and I sailed with them on for many years. Never had an argument with any of them. They were great people. It’s just a very sad ending. And thanks be to God that I got off 10 days before. If I hadn’t, I’d be one of those 33 without a doubt.”

Slade: “I met with their families. I spent time with Baird, I spent time with other mariners who knew them. Not everybody would speak to me, but those who did were very helpful in reading the words of these good, hardworking Americans on the transcript. It created an intimacy that I would not have had otherwise. You can’t help but start to identify with these folks. They’re just like you and me. They saw what was coming, they were scared, they were professional, they were hopeful. They tried and so many times. When I was writing this I said to myself, ‘What would I have done?’ And honestly I don’t know.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity.