Tragedy at Sea

 

All Hands Lost as Hurricane Claims Seafarers-Crewed Vessel

 

November 2015

 

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Editor’s note: For additional coverage of the El Faro, including photos of all 33 individuals lost with the ship, please see the complete edition of the Seafarers LOG (PDF format) by clicking HERE

 

The last communication from the SIU-crewed El Faro was calm.

 

En route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico, the ship had lost power near the Bahamas, had taken on water and was listing 15 degrees. But the situation was described from the vessel as manageable. At least some of the water reportedly had been pumped out.

 

That transmission around 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, along with subsequent initial updates from the U.S. Coast Guard and vessel owner/operator Tote Maritime Puerto Rico led to nervous hopefulness that the El Faro was riding out what had started as a tropical storm.

 

Despite heroic search efforts from the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force and others – at one point, U.S. airplanes were losing parts while braving horrendous weather – good news never arrived. The storm that became Hurricane Joaquin lingered longer than forecast, which delayed and complicated the search mission.

 

The first substantial update happened on Oct. 4: A debris field had been found near the El Faro’s last known position. The next morning, a Coast Guard news conference all but confirmed everyone’s worst fears. The ship most likely had gone down in a category four hurricane; even if crew members had managed to launch lifeboats, they would have been doing so amidst 50-foot waves, 140-mph winds and in zero visibility.

 

The search continued until sunset on October 7, and one body was located along with more debris from the ship (which had been carrying hundreds of containers along with roll-on/roll-off cargo), but by then the tragic reality seemed inescapable.

 

Members of the El Faro’s final crew included 17 Seafarers, 11 members of the SIUNA-affiliated American Maritime Officers (AMO), and five Polish nationals.

 

The SIU members were Bosun Roan Lightfoot, ABs Carey Hatch, Jackie Jones, Jack Jackson, Brookie Davis and Frank Hamm, QEE Sylvester Crawford, RE1 Louis Champa, OMUs Anthony Thomas, German Solar-Cortes and Joe Hargrove, GUDEs Mariette Wright, James Porter and Roosevelt Clark, Steward/Baker Theodore Quammie, Chief Cook Lashawn Rivera and SA Lonnie Jordan.

 

The AMO members were Capt. Michael Davidson, Chief Mate Steven Shultz, Second Mate Danielle Randolph, Third Mate Jeremie Riehm, Chief Engineer Jeffrey Mathias, Chief Engineer Richard Pusatere, First Assistant Engineer Keith Griffin, Second Assistant Engineer Howard Schoenly, Third Assistant Engineer Michael Holland, Third Assistant Engineer Mitchell Kuflik and Third Assistant Engineer Dylan Meklin.

 

The Polish riding gang consisted of Piotr Krause, Marcin Nita, Jan Podgorski, Andrzej Truszkowski and Rafal Zdobych.

 

When the Coast Guard announced the search was ending, SIU President Michael Sacco stated, “Although we tried to maintain hope, we were afraid this moment would come. It is difficult to describe the profound grief we are sharing throughout our organization and with the crew members’ families.

 

“Words also cannot adequately express our gratitude for everyone involved in the search efforts,” he continued. “To the men and women of the Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force, we thank you and we salute you. We also deeply appreciate the efforts of Crowley Maritime and everyone else who pitched in. We know the effort was extraordinary and not without risk.

 

“We will never forget the men and women from the El Faro’s final voyage.”

 

AMO National President Paul Doell stated, “There are no words for our sadness and grief as we make the agonizing transition from hope and anticipation to sorrow and loss and all that comes with them. Our deepest sympathy and our prayers are with the families and loved ones of our brothers and sisters as we muster our resources to support them in whatever ways we can.”

 

The last time all hands were lost on an SIU-crewed ship was Oct. 24, 1980, when the SS Poet went down without a trace in the Atlantic. There were 34 mariners aboard: 24 Seafarers and 10 officers.

 

The El Faro tragedy also evoked memories of the 1983 sinking of the National Maritime Union vessel Marine Electric, which claimed the lives of 31 of its 34 mariners. It sank in frigid waters off the coast of Virginia on Feb. 12.

 

Union Hall Became Beacon

 

Most of the SIU crew from the El Faro lived in the Jacksonville area, and the SIU hall there immediately became the gathering place for family members, concerned fellow Seafarers, company officials, Coast Guard officers and others. Regularly scheduled informational meetings took place each day (including by phone for those family members who weren’t at the hall), as did a prayer vigil and, eventually, a memorial service.

 

As soon as the Coast Guard announced the grim outlook on October 5, SIU President Sacco and Executive Vice President Augie Tellez arranged to be in Jacksonville the following morning. They spent the week there, grieving with and supporting loved ones. They also met with mariners and company officials aboard the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque. Meanwhile, SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel spearheaded the formation of the Seafarers El Faro Assistance Fund, created to assist family members of the crew.

 

Tellez noted the bitter irony that an industry so often overlooked suddenly found itself in the headlines day after day as the saga unfolded.

 

“Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this one to focus America’s attention on what our people do, day in and day out, to keep the commerce of our country going and to help maintain national security,” Tellez stated. “Occasionally we are reminded of the dangers they face, whether they involve pirate attacks, enemy missiles or the mighty forces of nature. Mariners provide a critical service for everyone ashore, and they continue returning to sea even after tragic losses. God bless all our Seafarers wherever they may be.”


Heindel stated, “The loss of our brothers and sisters is a grim reminder of what life at sea can bring. It may include many mistresses, but the one uncertain, unpredictable and unforgiving mistress is the sea herself. While we respect her power, she is slow at recognizing our efforts and aptitudes, because no matter how well-trained we may be, the sea and her power are incomprehensible and unmatched.

 

“We have received many letters and messages of support from unions and friends from around the world,” Heindel continued. “I would like to express our sincere thanks on behalf of the families and our organization. We are touched and thankful knowing we are not alone in the loss of our colleagues.”

 

Indeed, the outpouring of sympathies was perhaps unprecedented for the union, which reflected both the sincerity of the messages and the prevalence and ease of electronic communications. The SIU’s social media sites were particular hotbeds of activity; most of the messages were in unity and sympathy, while others were personal remembrances of the individual crew members.

 

Still others were packed with understandable frustration and heartbreak as the maritime community tried to make sense of the tragedy.

 

QMED Samir Tarsha was one of hundreds if not thousands of members who weighed in.

 

“As a member of the same union, who ships out of the same union hall where the El Faro is crewed, I easily could’ve been on there,” he noted. “I’m on a ship now and during a drill yesterday we had a moment of silence for the crew and all of the families involved in the El Faro tragedy. It was hard holding tears back. To the crew of the El Faro, you will never be forgotten. Your memory lives on through us, your seafaring brothers and sisters. And to the families involved, I send my deepest condolences and prayers. Fair winds and following seas my fellow Seafarers.”

 

Recertified Steward Steve Dickson, also posting from aboard a ship, expressed his sympathy and called for unity.

 

“The eyes of America are upon the U.S. Merchant Marine,” he observed. “We must stand strong and not let feuding and bitterness rear their ugly heads in this time of sorrow. No American-flagged ship has been taken down by the sea in many years. On average, 127 vessels are lost each year worldwide. This has gone on for centuries, since travel and commerce upon the water began. The sea is a harsh mistress and mariners must never take her for granted. We must pull together to lift each other, not tear each other and our industry down. May those who were lost aboard El Faro rest in peace. You will not be forgotten, and we should pray for the safe return from every voyage of all those who go to sea.”

 

Retired Recertified Bosun Al Caulder, who sailed from 1967 to 2010 and who served as a patrolman in Jacksonville in the late 1980s, similarly conveyed his sadness while also offering broader perspective.

 

“So many of us old-timers grew up in SIU,” Caulder said. “We have all made sacrifices and found ourselves in dangerous situations on one vessel or another. Many of us have lost shipmates or seen our brothers’ ashes spread upon the ships’ wake over the waters that they loved and respected…. Appreciate and respect the joys and dangers of our way of life. Thank you my God for every SIU brother that I have ever sailed with and forgive me for the times that I did not appreciate them enough…. My wife and I will now bend our heads in prayer for those brothers and sisters who gave their all for the career they loved.”

 

Investigation Begins

 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) quickly began its investigation of the sinking, and said the research probably would take one year to 18 months. The report itself will be written afterward. The Coast Guard also will investigate.

 

At press time, a U.S. Military Sealift Command vessel was mobilizing to serve as a base for a U.S. salvage company. It is estimated that the El Faro sank in 15,000 feet of water, but government officials seemed optimistic about recovering a data recorder from the ship.

 

Predictably, the sinking isn’t without controversy. Critics said the 790-foot ship was too old (it was built in 1975) and that the vessel master should have chosen a different route. Some stooped so low as to attempt to turn the tragedy into a referendum on the Jones Act, sparking incredulity in the domestic maritime industry.

 

But Tote and many others pointed out the El Faro had passed all of its inspections, and that Davidson was the most experienced captain in the company’s fleet. Tote executives said he had a “sound plan” to skirt the storm, and according to at least one published report, the vessel had diverted by 100 miles from its usual course.

 

Not all of the facts are known – some may never come to light – but as one editorial put it, the storm strengthened sooner than expected, and the ship lost power at the absolute worst possible time.

 

Tote President and CEO Anthony Chiarello said, “We appreciate there are many rumors and speculations surrounding this tragic event, as there are with any accident. For the sake of the families and loved ones, we ask that you continue to respect their privacy and wait for the investigation results. We at Tote can never truly know the pain the families and loved ones have gone through, but we do know how deeply this event has affected every employee of Tote. A company is made up of people, and this tragedy has touched every individual across our organization.”

Search Mission

 

The breadth of the seven-day search mission was tremendous. Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, Air National Guard and ship and tugboat crews searched more than 183,000 square nautical miles off the Bahamian coast in a joint effort to locate the El Faro crew. The total area searched is the equivalent of several states.

 

Rear Adm. Scott Buschman, commander, Coast Guard 7th District, said. “U.S. Coast Guard, U.S Navy, U.S. Air Force, and the Tote Maritime tug crews searched day and night, sometimes in perilous conditions with the hope of finding survivors in this tragic loss.”

 

SIU members from Crowley and Tote assisted in the search. The Coast Guard also furnished this list of resources that were deployed:

 

-Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Florida HC-130 Hercules airplane crews

 

-Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Florida MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews

 

-Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina HC-130 Hercules airplane crews

 

-Coast Guard Cutter Northland, a 270-foot medium endurance cutter homeported in Portsmouth, Virginia

 

-Coast Guard Cutter Resolute a 210-foot medium endurance cutter, homeported in St. Petersburg, Florida

 

-Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton, homeported in Key West, Florida

 

-Air Force Rescue Coordination Center

 

-Air National Guard HC-130 airplane crews from the 106th Rescue Wing, Westhampton Beach, New York

 

-Air Force WC-130 Super Hercules crews from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, 403rd Wing, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi

 

-Navy P-8 Poseidon airplane crews from Naval Air Station Jacksonville

 

-Air Force E-8C Joint Stars crews from the 116th Air Control Wing, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.

 

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