Danielle Randolph squinted through rain-splattered windows as the sea freighter lunged upward sharply, then fell into the trough of a 30-foot-tall wave. The skies were black. The second mate stood on the navigation bridge high above El Faro’s main deck, which spread out before her like an aircraft carrier stacked high with red, white and blue cargo containers.
News blurted through the bridge’s radio speaker: Forecasters had named the storm Hurricane Joaquin as it built into a Category 3, with winds of 130 mph. “Oh my God,” she said to the helmsman standing nearby, bracing when the ship she called “the rust bucket” shuddered over another wave.
“Can’t pound your way through them waves. Break the ship in half,” the helmsman said.
It was 1:15 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2015, and the Atlantic was boiling over. El Faro, sailing near San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, was being knocked about by the strongest October storm to hit these waters since 1866. In the coming hours, El Faro and its crew would fight desperately for survival.
Another wave slammed into them. “Oh (expletive),” said Randolph. “That was a bad one.” The alarm sounded. The ship was now pushed in another direction, off the captain’s chosen course. After a few tense seconds, El Faro righted herself.
“She’s doin’ good. I’m impressed. Knock on wood,” said Randolph.
El Faro was one of two ships owned by TOTE Maritime Inc. that navigated in constant rotation between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It brought everything from milk to Mercedes Benzes to the island. If El Faro missed its run store shelves sat empty, an economy suffered and TOTE lost money.
This run was to be El Faro’s last before a major retrofit. Inspectors had found parts of the vessel’s boilers that were “deteriorated severely” and service was scheduled in the next month. This came as no surprise: One Coast Guard inspector had identified a “disturbing” uptick in safety discrepancies during El Faro’s inspections from 2013 to 2014. The Guard was in the process of adding the 40-year-old ship to its “target list” of U.S. cargo vessels that needed a higher level of scrutiny.
To add to the danger, El Faro was equipped with open-top lifeboats similar to those used on the Titanic or Lusitania. Modern ships carry the round, tent-like lifeboats with electronic beacons that dramatically increase survival chances in a shipwreck.
Once, Randolph texted pictures of El Faro’s lifeboats to her mom. “Is that your lifeboat? It’s open,” her mom replied, aghast. A coastal Mainer, Laurie Bobillot knew open lifeboats to be a thing of the past. “Let’s hope you never get into some rough seas,” she wrote, “because you know kid, you’re screwed.”
“Yes, I know,” Randolph replied. “Mom, if I ever die at sea, that’s where I want to be.”
Randolph had a cordial relationship with the captain of El Faro. She respected him, but told her mother and friends she didn’t like his dismissive attitude. The storm had been growing, so Randolph suggested they consider taking a longer, slower route south through the Old Bahama Channel. But the captain had the final word on voyage planning, and he refused to deviate.
She’d noticed the captain was sound asleep when she’d called. It rang a few times before he answered.
The ship was taking a beating, she’d said, but was holding course. The captain asked about the latest weather reports. He would return to the bridge in a few hours. She hung up the phone as the ship took on another huge wave.
“He said to run it. Hooold on to your ass!” Randolph shouted.
“Figured the captain would be up here,” the helmsman said. Microphones on the bridge picked up their conversations, which were sent to a voyage data recorder, the ship’s “black box.”
“I thought so too. I’m surprised,” Randolph replied.
“Damn,” the helmsman said with disappointment. “He’ll play hero tomorrow,” he said laughing. The captain would be praised for the ship making it through Hurricane Joaquin to San Juan on time.
Even after a decade at sea, Randolph, 34, maintained a youthful air. Her round, freckled face was slightly weathered from the sun, and her dumb jokes endeared her to the 32 crewmates who relied on her skillful navigation. She stood only 5-foot-3, but her mariner toughness was displayed in the large anchor tattoo on her chest, which peeked over the neckline of the vintage ’50s dresses she liked to wear on shore.
Randolph was one of only two women on this cargo run. Raised in a military family whose motto was “suck it up,” she worked hard and asked few questions.
But now, she was helpless against the crushing waves, wind and rain. “It would help if I knew which direction the swell was coming from,” Randolph said to the helmsman. “I could alter course a little more. I can’t see.” They heard a massive thump from below, in the bowels of the ship. El Faro carried heavy cargo in its interior holds: If that was a car or something else coming loose, it was a sailor-crushing danger.
“Whoooo!” Randolph exclaimed.
“Yeah, it’s startin’ to get a little bit more active around here,” the helmsman replied. The swelling seas shoved El Faro around like a cork.
Randolph could not know exactly how hard the wind was blowing. El Faro’s anemometer, or wind gauge, had been broken for years. To adapt, the sailors usually stepped out on deck to gauge wind speed the old-fashioned way, by checking the flap of the boat’s flags. That was impossible in the dark. Randolph scanned the radar for a fellow vessel in the area, but every other ship had diverted to avoid the storm. El Faro was alone.
“Hello, Joaquin,” Randolph said to the storm. “It’s just getting bigger — our path is going right through it.”
At 3:34 a.m. the captain emerged from his stateroom. Randolph greeted him, grateful for the chance to go down to her room for a quick rest. She’d found time to fire off a quick email to her mother. “We are heading straight into it, Category 3, last we checked. Winds are super bad. Love to everyone.”
Later that day, reading the email in Denmark, Wisconsin, Randolph’s mother knew something was wrong. Randolph never signed her emails, “Love to everyone.” Her mother understood that her daughter was sending a coded message: I may never see you again.
With his square chin, salt-and-pepper hair and thick Mainer’s brogue, El Faro’s captain was a meticulous master who struck a commanding presence. Yet Michael Davidson‘s detached, hands-off style led Randolph and some others to describe the 53-year-old master as a “stateroom captain.” Stateroom captains didn’t get their hands dirty and weren’t seen a lot on deck. They didn’t share smokes and chit chat with the crew.
On the bridge, he greeted Randolph’s replacement, chief mate Steve Shultz, and a new helmsman, Frank Hamm. He set out to calm their nerves. “There’s nothing bad about this ride,” the captain announced, despite the hurricane raging outside. “I was sleepin’ like a baby. This is every day in Alaska,” the captain continued. No one could see out of the windows, except for when brief sparks of lightning illuminated the rain. “A typical winter day in Alaska.”
Earlier in his career Davidson had navigated freighters in the Alaska trade, known in the industry as one of the most bruising theaters of sailing. But his leadership had been questioned by TOTE’s upper management, and after initially leaning toward offering Davidson the job heading one of its new ships the company decided to go in a different direction. Now favored were younger captains who could drive the new high-tech freighters.
Before leaving port in Jacksonville, Davidson expressed disappointment to colleagues that he hadn’t been chosen to command the modern, liquefied natural gas-fueled ship that was to replace El Faro. The captain had been disappointed by the news, but he was a professional. Perhaps he thought he could show them that they’d made a mistake by making El Faro’s cargo run on time, even with a major storm system in his way. Davidson knew what could happen to masters who raised safety concerns that weren’t considered serious enough by the company.
He had been fired by a prior employer after an incident with another ship. The steering was bad on that one, and he’d refused an order to take it to port, requiring the company to hire tugboats to drag it there instead.
The course alarm, which blared every time the ship deviated from its programmed route, was now ringing every few seconds as the seas flung the vessel around. The captain ordered it turned off, along with the auto-piloting system, nicknamed the “Iron Mike.” They would have to steer the ship manually, to use their human senses to feel the swell and winds, as they piloted blindly into the waves.
Containers the size of Mack trucks were breaking free from their chain lashings. They’d left port not expecting the heavy weather and didn’t ask the longshoremen for extra storm lashes, the ship’s third mate had said ruefully earlier in the day, as the storm worsened. Now, thrown off balance, El Faro tilted precariously to the right, or starboard, as it plunged into the pounding waves.
Unsure why his boat was listing, the captain searched for a solution. The steep angling of the ship was making it hard to stand up straight. If he knew the hurricane-force wind’s direction — difficult to detect at night in a hurricane with a broken wind gauge — the helmsman could position the freighter so that the wind hit its left, port side, correcting the vessel’s pitch. Flooding in the cavern-like interior holds could be battled with pumps to redirect the water into other areas for balance. If the ship lost some of its 20-ton containers, he could use the pumps to help compensate for that, too.
None of that mattered without power, though. The captain called down to the engine room to check that the ship’s boilers, its only source of power, were still operational. Without propulsion in a Category 3 storm, El Faro would be lost.
“How you guys doing down there?” he asked. The engineer replied that they were “blowin’ tubes,” or trying to remove obstructions from the engine as it chugged. There was another problem: the intake tube that sucked oil like a straw from a large tank into the engines was starting to lose contact with the oil due to the ship’s tilt. Without oil, the engines would stop running altogether.
Standing with the captain on the bridge, chief mate Shultz noted the barometer readings were headed downward, which could indicate they were closer to Joaquin’s eye. That ran counter to the storm track models Davidson had used — those showed the storm farther away. He still planned to outrun it.
“We won’t be goin’ through the eye,” the captain said: If they could skirt a bit further south, away from the eye toward Crooked Island, they would reach its backside more quickly.
With the ship tilting and oil pressure decreasing, the captain decided to use the wind to force the ship more upright. If he could do that, he could get oil pressure back, and increase the ship’s power. “Just steer that heading right there the best you can. That’ll work for us,” the captain instructed Hamm and Shultz.
The ship dropped down a three-story-tall swell. “Feel the pressure droppin’ in your ears just then? Feel that?” Davidson said, trying to make light of the situation.
Hamm’s large frame was bent over in fear at his console. Two days earlier, the 49-year-old father of five had called Rochelle, his wife, just
“Take your time and relax,” Davidson said. Hamm managed to find his breath, then took the helm back. “I am relaxed, Captain.”
Davidson turned quickly to the ship’s computer. He needed to check the Bon Voyage System, or BVS, an online subscription weather forecasting tool, to get the latest hard data on Joaquin. “Hanging in there (Frank)?” Shultz said, trying to keep the jittery helmsman engaged as the captain scanned his email for the weather updates. “Still got us on course. You’re doin’ great.”
The captain grew confused. Though the forecasting tool told him the storm was still farther north, clearly they were right in it. “We’re gettin’ conflicting reports as to where the center of the storm is,” he said.
Davidson didn’t know that there was a problem with the BVS system emails he was receiving: One update he’d received had storm tracking information that was 21 hours old. While he had access to other forecasts on the internet, Davidson relied on BVS. The storm they now faced was far more advanced than his weather models showed.
“Our biggest enemy here right now is we can’t see,” he said. He believed they were nearing the back side of the storm, but had no way of knowing for sure. By overruling his crew’s suggested alternate routes, he had made a horrible mistake.
An engineer from below deck appeared on the bridge. Something wasn’t right. “I’ve never seen it list like this,” the engineer reported. El Faro’s steep list was not just from sliding shipping containers, the engineer reasoned — something else was to blame.
The phone rang with a call from the engine room. The ship was losing oil pressure, and needed to be righted now.
“I’m tryin’ to get her steadied up,” the captain replied.
Water surged over the ship’s stern, and the sound of the ocean pounding the old ship was deafening. Another electric ring of the telephone. Davidson answered, “Bridge, captain.”
A moment passed and he turned to his chief mate: “We got a prrroooblem.”
Water had started flooding one of the ship’s warehouse-sized holds used to store cars and other large containers. He ordered Shultz, a 54-year-old former Navy captain and seasoned mariner, below deck immediately to start pumping out the hold. It was a perilous assignment. Any piece of heavy cargo afloat in the hold could easily pulverize Shultz. The chief mate grabbed a walkie-talkie and climbed down from the bridge.
“About knee deep in here,” he said.
At 6 a.m., Randolph came back to the bridge from her stateroom. She’d changed out of her work clothes, and hadn’t changed back before coming up.
She moved over to the dead radar screen — it’d gone dark, maybe from water coming through a gap in one of the bridge’s windows — to try and get the ship’s current position. After a few minutes, the radar fluttered and suddenly blinked back to life. “All right, good,” the captain said. He ordered Randolph to sync the latest BVS weather models with their current position, still not realizing the data was hours old, and useless.
The ship groaned over yet another tall wave. “Nooooo,” Randolph said, bracing. “There goes the lawn furniture.”
“Let’s hope that’s all,” said the captain.
Shultz called from the flooded hold again. He wanted the bridge to move the ship so the water below would shift to the other side.
All at once, a terrifying silence gripped them. The rumble and vibration of ship’s engines ceased. El Faro was adrift.
“I think we just lost the plant,” Davidson said.
Somehow, he needed to balance the ship — an almost impossible feat without propulsion.
Down below, the whirring pumps continued to push thousands of gallons a minute from the flooded holds. Up top, everyone had to use their leg muscles to stay standing on the angling ship. “Feeling those thighs burn?” Randolph asked Hamm, as he dug in to turn the rudder.
Just after 7 a.m., Davidson picked up the ship’s emergency satellite phone. He dialed the cellphone number of TOTE’s designated person ashore, the only human in charge of knowing what was going on with the fleet.
The call went to voicemail.
Davidson rattled out a brief message, then called the company’s answering service. A woman picked up with a pleasant hello.
“We had a hull breach; a scuttle blew open during a storm,” Davidson explained tersely. “We have water down in three hold, with a heavy list. We’ve lost the main propulsion unit, the engineers cannot get it going.” He asked for her to patch him through to a TOTE official immediately.
“Can you please give me your satellite phone number and spell the name of the vessel?” she asked slowly. “Spell your name, please?”
TOTE safety officials had identified the answering service as a problem previously, but it had not been fixed.
“The clock is ticking” the captain said, his voice calm despite the chaos. He tried again. “This is a marine emergency, and I am tryin’ to also notify management!” He gave the operator his name and number and hung up.
Electronic alarms echoed throughout the steel freighter. Randolph read out their current position. The captain called down to the flooding hold. “Can you tell if it’s decreasing or increasing?” he asked. “I can’t tell captain. Seems as if it’s goin’ down,” the chief mate replied. He turned to Randolph. “Say second mate. How ’bout our range and bearing from like San Miguel Island? Or San Salvador? Whatever that island is there,” he said, looking for any sign of land they might be able to reach. He grabbed El Faro’s emergency beacon that would aid rescuers in finding their position.
The satellite phone rang, it was his boss. “Yeah, I’m real good,” Davidson said matter-of-factly. “Three hold’s got considerable amount of water in it. Uh, we have a very, very healthy port list. The engineers cannot get lube oil pressure on the plant, therefore we’ve got no main engine. And let me give you, um, a latitude and longitude. I just wanted to give you a heads up before I push that, push that button,” he said, referring to the Ship Security Alert System, or SSAS, an emergency beacon. It was 7:07 a.m.
“The crew is safe,” he said into the phone. “Right now we’re tryin’ to save the ship. But it’s not gettin’ any better. No one’s panicking. Our safest bet is to stay with the ship during this particular time. The weather is ferocious out here.” Davidson told his boss it was time to alert the Coast Guard. “I wanna wake everybody up,” he said. “I just wanted to give you that courtesy, so you wouldn’t be blindsided by it. Everybody’s safe right now, we’re in survival mode.”
Randolph stood at the ready. “All right now, push the SSAS button,” he commanded.
“Roger,” she said.
“Wake everybody up. WAKE ‘EM UP!” Davidson shouted. “We’re gonna be good. We’re gonna make it right here.”
Chief Mate Shultz radioed from the flooded hold again. “I think the water level’s rising captain,” he said. He could think of nothing more to do.
“All right, chief,” the captain replied.
Davidson’s tinny voice sounded over the ship’s intercom ordering the crew to muster. He wanted everyone accounted for. The high-frequency bell of the abandon ship alarm rang out.
“Can I get my vest?” Randolph asked.
“Yup, bring mine up too and bring one for (Frank)” the captain replied. The helmsman, a large man and diabetic, yelled out as Randolph left the bridge: “I need two!”
“OK buddy, relax,” the captain said. The ship heaved, the tip of its bow sinking beneath the black water.
“Bow is down. Bow is down,” Davidson said over the ship intercom.
“Get into your rafts. Throw all your rafts in the water,” he yelled. “Everybody. EVERYBODY GET OFF THE SHIP! STAY TOGETHER!” he screamed.
Hamm was unable to move. “Cap, Cap,” he said.
“You gotta get up,” Davidson ordered. “You gotta snap out of it and we gotta get out!” he said, his voice firm, urgent.
“Help me!” Hamm pleaded.
“Ya gotta get to safety!” the captain yelped. Hamm couldn’t move.
The shrill beat of alarms continued as the ship’s tilt worsened.
The captain reached for Hamm. “Don’t panic. Don’t panic,” he said. “Work your way up here. Don’t freeze up! Follow me,” he pleaded with Hamm.
“I can’t! My feet are slipping! I’m goin’ down!”
Davidson looked at his terrified helmsman. “You’re not goin’ down. COME ON!” he yelled.
“You gonna leave me,” Hamm cried.
“I’m not leavin’ you. Let’s go,” the captain responded.
“I’M A GONER!” Hamm screamed.
“NO, YOU’RE NOT!” the captain replied.
El Faro’s bridge reared up as the ship sank deeper.
“IT’S TIME TO COME THIS WAY!” Davidson shouted, as El Faro slipped beneath the sea.
It would be months before search crews found the wreckage. El Faro had come to rest 15,000 feet down, on the seafloor near the Bahamas. The bridge where Hamm and Davidson struggled for survival had separated from the vessel’s hull, and lay a quarter mile away.
No bodies were ever recovered. It was the worst maritime disaster for a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.
The U.S. Coast Guard has held six weeks of investigative hearings over the past year, and the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting its own probe. Both agencies are expected to issue findings later this year.
TOTE defended its safety record, and emphasized that El Faro was permitted to operate by the Coast Guard despite the issues flagged by inspectors. The company also said it had been working on fixing the problems with its emergency answering service, but had not gotten to it before El Faro’s voyage. It now is paying for a more expensive storm forecasting tool for its entire fleet.
In December 2015, about two months after El Faro sank, a couple picking up trash on Ormond Beach in Florida found a green hard hat among the plastic bottles and other garbage. The name “FRANK” was scrawled in Hamm’s writing across the front.
Rochelle Hamm recognized it immediately as her husband’s. It’s encrusted with sand and bits of dried seaweed.
She keeps it in a bag by the side of her bed.
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.