The worst cargo shipping disaster in a generation has been the subject of two years of investigation and six weeks of public hearings. Sunday, an explanation of why the ship sank will be made public, along with recommendations on how to avoid similar catastrophes.
Thirty-three crew members died when the ship sailed into the path of Hurricane Joaquin on Sept. 29, 2015. The ship lost power and began taking on water before it sank in 40-foot waves Oct. 1.
The investigation has focused on a number of possible causes, including the age and condition of the 40-year-old vessel, the extent and effectiveness of regulatory oversight, the timing and availability of weather alerts, and the management structure that allowed the ship to take such a perilous path.
The 790-foot ship was traveling from its home port of Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. When it departed, Joaquin was only a tropical storm, but by the time it moved into El Faro's path, it had grown into a Category 4 hurricane.
None of the sailors aboard survived; no bodies were recovered.
The investigation, which began shortly after the sinking, got a boost after the Voyage Data Recorder was recovered in August 2016 from the ocean floor, three miles below the surface. The VDR recorded the final 26 hours of the voyage, including the harrowing final exchanges between Capt. Michael Davidson and his crew.
The Marine Board of Investigation included members of the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is set to release its own conclusions and findings in December. The Coast Guard chose to release the Report of Investigation (ROI) before the agency’s Commandant has had an opportunity to review and comment. The Coast Guard says they chose to release the ROI before the Commandant issues his Final Action Memo in order to provide families with maximum transparency into the process.
Jacksonville maritime attorney Rod Sullivan, who represented some families of victims and attended many days of public hearings, said he expected the report to recommend tougher regulations on crew fatigue and ship inspections, which are currently privatized and not under the auspices of the U.S. Coast Guard. He hopes – but doubts – the report will address onboard safety equipment. Because of the El Faro’s age, the ship’s outdated open lifeboats were “grandfathered” in. More modern ships are required to have closed lifeboats.
First Coast News will live-stream Sunday’s Coast Guard press conference on the release of the report starting at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.