(The subject cargo ship, El Faro. Credit: MarineTraffic.com/ Capt. William Hoey)
The Spanish word “faro” means “lighthouse.” Lighthouses
serve two main purposes—as a navigational aid and to warn boats
of dangerous areas. Yet the captain of El Faro, departed from the meaning
of the namesake of the vessel he was appointed to safely navigate, and
navigated the cargo ship, El Faro, into the eye of Hurricane Joaquin,
which was then a strong Category 3 Hurricane. By now, news of the El Faro
sinking is widespread, and has been touted as one of the worst cargo-ship
accidents off the U.S. coast in decades, and resulted in the loss of at
least 33 lives and an estimated millions of dollars of cargo.
When the cargo ship El Faro left Jacksonville, Florida for its regular
run to Puerto Rico, its captain mistakenly believed that a tropical storm
named Joaquin drifting near the Bahamas was nothing that the rugged 790-foot
vessel and its experienced crew couldn’t handle. It has been reported
that the 33 member crew included 28 Americans and five Polish people.
It makes little sense that the vessel set sail despite the storms’
path. But what is even more shocking about this tragedy is that, even
though the storm strengthened and forecast changed as soon as the massive
ship set sail, El Faro’s course—the shortest, straightest
shot across the Atlantic to offload containers—never did. In fact, despite increasingly ominous warnings about Hurricane Joaquin
from the National Hurricane Center, tracking data shows that the El Faro
steered almost directly into the strengthening eye of a major hurricane.
The relevant timeline, as provided by numerous media outlets, is as follows:
- Tuesday, September 29, 2015, the cargo ship, El Faro, with a crew of 33
and a cargo that included cars and retail goods, departed Jacksonville,
Florida for San Juan, Puerto Rico for what was supposed to be a four-day
voyage. As of 5 a.m. on the day of departure, then-Tropical Storm Joaquin
had maximum wind speeds of 40 mph (65 kph) and its center was located
about 385 miles (620 kilometers) northeast of the central Bahamas, according
to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
- Wednesday, September 30, 2015: Joaquin intensified from a tropical storm
to a hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph). In the
early hours of the morning, it was about 215 miles (345) east-north east
of the Central Bahamas and heading southwest at 6 mph (9 kph).
- Thursday, October 1, 2015: TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the ship's owner,
lost all communication with the El Faro after the crew reported losing
power and taking on water as the ship is passing near Crooked Island in
the southeastern Bahamas. Allegedly, prior to losing communication, the
Captain radioed TOTE that the propulsion system had failed. Hurricane
Joaquin is now a Category 3, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195
kph) with higher gusts. The hurricane-force winds extended 35 miles (55
kilometers) out from the center. The center was 10 miles (15 kilometers)
north of Samana Cay in the southern Bahamas.
The owners of El Faro insist that the captain had a "sound plan"
to avoid Hurricane Joaquin, but that the ship's main propulsion failed,
stranding the crew in the path of the storm. During a press conference
on Monday, October 5, 2015, Tote Services’ President, Phil Greene,
told reporters that given the weather system, the captain's "plan
was a sound plan that would have enabled him to clearly pass around the
storm with a margin of comfort that was adequate in his professional opinion."
Also present were Tote Services’ CEO, Anthony Chiarello, and Tote
Maritime Puerto Rico’s President, Tim Nolan. However, none of the
three managers could answer the reporters’ repeated question: Knowing
that a potential hurricane was brewing, why was El Faro allowed to go
ahead with its scheduled route? Instead, they claim that they put their
trust in the company's captains to be the decision-makers, and that
up until El Faro lost its propulsion, the reports were not alarming.
What the trio of managers did state during the conference was that:
- the captain did not explain in his communication why he had lost propulsion—he
just indicated that he had had a navigational incident;
- the captain had said the ship was listing, or leaning, 15 degrees, but
it was unclear whether that was due to the wind or environmental conditions,
and what impact this may have had on the propulsion system;
- the captain did not say why the vessel became disabled in terms of the
engineering problem of the propulsion system; and
- it is unknown how much time lapsed between the time the propulsion failed
and the time the captain reported the problem to his bosses.
On Monday, October 5, 2015, the U.S Coast Guard confirmed the worst fears
of families awaiting word in the ship’s homeport of Jacksonville—the
massive ship, missing since a last communication Thursday, had sunk. The
massive search in the Caribbean Sea has yielded a 225-square-mile debris
field, but no ship and no survivors. One corpse was found on Sunday night,
October 4, 2015, as well as an empty and badly damaged 43-seat lifeboat.
There were unidentifiable human remains inside a “survival suit,”
which helps crew members float and avoid hypothermia. Investigators with
the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Jacksonville on Tuesday,
October 6, 2015.
The aftermath of this disaster has left not only those who lost their lives
as victims, but also their families and numerous businesses, shippers,
and manufacturers. As this disaster occurred in the sea, it will be governed
by federal admiralty and maritime law.
Assuming that the propulsion system did fail, this certainly brings up
serious questions about the seaworthiness of the vessel. There are also
questions about whether the captain, with Tote’s knowledge and approval,
violated any standards or duties owed to the crew to navigate the vessel
in a reasonably safe manner. It appears at the onset that there are numerous
viable unseaworthiness, personal injury (Jones Act and general maritime),
and/or wrongful death claims (such as Death on the High Seas Act and others)
available to the victims of this disaster and/or their families.
As to the commercial aspect of the disaster, an estimated millions of dollars
of cargo was lost in the accident, leaving various shippers, consignees,
and manufacturers facing the need to file numerous cargo claims.
Ultimately, El Faro’s owner and operator, Tote Maritime Puerto Rico,
will have many people to answer to, and need to start to try to make things
right—although the loss of life can never be fully compensated.
If you, your family, and/or your business(es) have been directly affected
by this tragedy, you will need a dedicated and knowledgeable legal team
to review the facts, determine whether you have a viable claim, and fight
for you against these large corporations. The attorneys at Cassidy &
Black, P.A. have more than 50 years of combined experience in
admiralty and maritime claims in Miami, helping clients obtain the compensation they deserve. Both partners—Michael
Black and William Cassidy—are
Board Certified Admiralty and Maritime Lawyers by the Florida Bar. We are willing to help, and are available by phone
at (305) 964-8792. Please contact us today for your free consultation.
(Disclaimer: The facts and timelines set forth herein are taken from various
news outlets, such as CNN, Miami Herald, and Associated Press. They are
not the result of the author’s independent investigation of the facts.)