El Faro-Lives and Cargo Unnecessarily Lost, Pt. 2

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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, the captain mistakenly believed that the 790-foot vessel and its experienced crew would be able to handle the oncoming tropic storm named Joaquin, drifting near the Bahamas. 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, tracking data reveals that the El Faro seems to have ignored the repeated serious warnings about about Hurricane Joaquin, and instead steered almost directly into the eye of the storm.

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 family members of the ship's passengers had their fears confirmed. The U.S Coast Guard informed them that the missing ship 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. 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.)