A Fatal Mistake
October 24, 2016 8:39 AM   Subscribe

The Sinking of El Faro: On October 1, 2015, the container ship El Faro sailed directly into the path of Hurricane Joaquin. When it sank it took the lives of all 33 aboard, including eight New Englanders. Rachel Slade wanted to know what happened and why. You will not soon forget what she found.
posted by Cash4Lead (45 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
A little more from gcaptain
posted by adamvasco at 8:48 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


The article doesn't seem to actually cover the aftermath. TOTE doesn't seem to have suffered any formal consequences from regulators, but has settled with 18 of the 33 families of the deceased as of April of this year.

The audio recorder shows that the ship lasted less than 90 minutes after it lost power.
posted by Candleman at 9:28 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was surprised at first that this was a US flagged ship but the article goes on to explain why.
posted by tommasz at 9:31 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Rachel Slade wanted to know what happened and why. You will not soon forget what she found.

Or you could, you know, just summarize it for us in a pithy sentence.

I've reached the point where I absolutely refuse to support clickbait, so if somebody could let me know what this completely unforgettable finding was (and if it will make my jaw drop like seeing what Heather Locklear looks like now), I'd appreciate it.
posted by Shepherd at 9:36 AM on October 24, 2016 [83 favorites]


Interesting article. I have been a longtime fan of the Shipwreck Log so this is right up my alley.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:37 AM on October 24, 2016


What a maddening story. It was mystifying at the time, why on earth would a captain play chicken with a hurricane? But economic pressures and complacency will do it.
.
posted by Bee'sWing at 9:38 AM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


This could have been an FPP about how pervasive clickbait headlines have gotten. Rachel Slade didn't actually "find" anything. She did a lot of interviewing and wrote a feature piece about it. The lede is that this was tragic but there's no good answer about why it happened.
posted by radicalawyer at 9:46 AM on October 24, 2016 [25 favorites]


Long-form clickbait: the worst kind.
posted by BentFranklin at 10:00 AM on October 24, 2016 [18 favorites]


What a completely banal story. And no, I didn't care about the towns that the crew members grew up in or any of the discussions about the crewmember's hair color. There is nothing new in this story that isn't reflected in the wikipedia page. Considering the author claims to have spent something like a year obsessed over this, the only thing she tells us "we don't yet and may never know what happened" and some local color about the people which isn't terribly compelling.

Btw - the NTSB findings are often a waste of time. They are based off of factual reports of working groups which often include and are driven by representatives of the company at issue, so they are whitewashed. So start with a whitewashed fact pattern, and you end up with a whitewashed finding. I've dealt with this firsthand, and it's ridiculous. The NTSB should be cracking down on TOTE and antiquated technology that causes tragedies like this. The real story is why a company like that is allowed to send any ship, much less an unseaworthy artifact like the el Faro, into a potential hurricane. There should be serious consequences against TOTE, but don't hold your breath that it will come from our defanged NTSB.
posted by dios at 10:01 AM on October 24, 2016 [6 favorites]


if somebody could let me know what this completely unforgettable finding was

Apparently, the crew of the El Faro were more than just statistics. They were people, with all the flaws and virtues of people you actually care about. People who loved their work, people who left behind families who are left with unanswered questions. The story of the El Faro and it's untimely sinking is, in the end, a human story, a story of love and hope, a story of tragedy and loss. It is a story that encapsulates the human experience, and so it is a story you will never forget.

That's about the best I can do for you.
posted by Naberius at 10:03 AM on October 24, 2016 [43 favorites]


.

Was looking for 'unforgettable' cause-- bazaar mechanical failure, Captain falling overboard, kracken--but just the usual corporate greed and malfeasance.

Thank Rand they salvaged the bottom line.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:05 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


The captain drove his old and broken-down ship into the hurricane rather than going round, possibly because he was getting pressure from his management chain to take a shorter route in order to save money. The ship sank. Nobody escaped in lifeboats, possibly because the lifeboats were as old and crappy as the rest of the ship. We still don't know exactly why the ship got into trouble but can take a guess.

It's a terrible event, but I'm not sure there's any dark mystery or great work of sleuthing here.
posted by Urtylug at 10:06 AM on October 24, 2016 [11 favorites]


This is a regional magazine from an area where going to sea is much more common than in the country as a whole. So it is only natural that their readers would be interested in the details.
posted by Bee'sWing at 10:08 AM on October 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


We are quite literally not getting the full story:

In remembrance of the first anniversary of the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro on October 1, which claimed the lives of all 33 aboard, including eight New Englanders, we offer this advance preview of the feature story, “A Fatal Mistake,” by Rachel Slade.

“A Fatal Mistake” will appear in print in the upcoming November/December 2016 issue of Yankee Magazine.
[emph. added]

Clickbait to buy the printed dead-tree version is new to me. Nonetheless, I found this an interesting piece; I remember the event last year and thinking why on earth a captain would sail directly into a hurricane. We know more now why. As an aside, I'd recommend John McPhee's Looking for a Ship about the merchant marine; the economic pressures he wrote about thirty or more years ago have only increased.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 10:16 AM on October 24, 2016 [9 favorites]


Thanks, dios. ;)
posted by Splunge at 10:20 AM on October 24, 2016


This was a good story. I'm glad I read it. But yeah, the clickbait-y headline (it's the subhead on the actual article, not something the OP made up, FYI in case it seems like we're bashing the OP) was really annoying.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:24 AM on October 24, 2016


In short, El Faro was a ship of contrasts.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:27 AM on October 24, 2016 [16 favorites]


No mention of life boats, emergency beacons, or survival suits that could have kept the crew alive?
posted by miyabo at 10:27 AM on October 24, 2016


The one body found was in a survival suit, but crushed beyond recognition. The article refers several times to the possibility that the cargo above or below decks may have shifted and that if it had happened it could have fatal for a crew member caught in the way and possibly the ship itself, but the author admits no one knows whether it happened or not.
posted by Gelatin at 10:29 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


(Also, the bridge recording, which was recovered, has the captain issuing an order to abandon ship about a half an hour before the ship sank, but they were in the middle of a raging hurricane. Survival in a life boat -- let alone the open-topped ones carried by the El Faro -- or a survival suit would have been most unlikely.)
posted by Gelatin at 10:31 AM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


No mention of life boats, emergency beacons, or survival suits that could have kept the crew alive?

The lifeboats were open to the air, having been grandfathered in from a less safe era, and wouldn't have had much chance against an intense hurricane. It was touched on in the part talking about how the US requires that ships that service the coast be US chartered.
posted by Candleman at 10:35 AM on October 24, 2016


Man...That transcription of the initial distress call reads like something from a Gibson novel, where 911 calls are outsourced to some low-price marketing call-center in Mumbai.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:36 AM on October 24, 2016 [10 favorites]


In short, El Faro was a ship of contrasts.

Turns out the real ship... was friendship.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:37 AM on October 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


In retrospect, I probably should have stripped the clickbait off of the summary, but don't let that turn you off the story itself, which as Naberius points out, is about the people who were lost more than anything else.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:40 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


In retrospect, I realize that comment could come off as trivializing this wreck and the people who died, which is not what I meant. More to express frustration at the clickbaity approach to the situation by this story.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:44 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hey, don't drag me into this.
posted by Naberius at 10:46 AM on October 24, 2016


I would be quite interested in a story about how "national security" concerns keep "roll on roll off" ships like this in American waters because we need them in American hands in case we have to get tanks to Europe quickly.

I also wonder what other parts of the world are being made more and more unsafe by fucking "efficiency" experts. Every time we see one of these things it comes down to some bean counter at corporate who created a culture that calculates a dollars vs risk with lives ratio.
posted by Megafly at 10:53 AM on October 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


Btw - the NTSB findings are often a waste of time...There should be serious consequences against TOTE, but don't hold your breath that it will come from our defanged NTSB.

Are you aware of how the NTSB works? They don't have, and have never had, the power to levy fines or penalties against anyone. The Board's commission is based on making safety recommendations, not punitive judgment.

I have followed their aircraft accident investigation program for many years and found their reports to be incredibly detailed and well thought out. They are absolutely willing to lay blame where blame is due precisely because they have no vested interest in punishment. They have industry involvement because industry, as a whole, benefits from the increased safety oversight. The whole reason the setup works so well is because NTSB's findings can't be used in court.

There certainly are criticisms to be made about the lack of penalties levied against manufacturers and operators in cases of negligence, but you're casting blame in the wrong direction. I believe wholeheartedly that the NTSB has been and continues to be an effective force for change in transportation safety, and if you're going to lob accusations against them for not being punishing enough than you really don't understand how the system works.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:56 AM on October 24, 2016 [36 favorites]


When it sank it took the lives of all 33 aboard, including eight New Englanders.

And five Poles.

What a terrifying way to die.
posted by pracowity at 11:06 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


I also wonder what other parts of the world are being made more and more unsafe by fucking "efficiency" experts. Every time we see one of these things it comes down to some bean counter at corporate who created a culture that calculates a dollars vs risk with lives ratio.

Most of our lives are governed by risk/reward decisions, and it's not just a bad thing. The British and Canadian health systems have to make dollars vs. lives decisions all the time, and in the aggregate it's a big positive because it allows a system where everyone gets fairly decent health coverage. Similarly, in the US we want car manufacturers to make reasonable cost/safety tradeoffs, because most people can't afford a $50K really, really safe car and whether we like it or not, cars are more or less required for many people to live.

But at the same time, we don't want cases like this where near monopolies make dangerous choices, companies or individuals knowingly creating hazards counting on bankruptcy and limited liability to cover their personal risk, or things like banks taking undue risk counting on externalizing the fallout to tax payers.
posted by Candleman at 11:11 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


Interestingly, this area is part of the "Bermuda Triangle." Which indicates why so many ships have gone down there... nothing mysterious at all, really.
posted by My Dad at 11:12 AM on October 24, 2016


They have industry involvement because industry, as a whole, benefits from the increased safety oversight.

planes are different from boats, particularly wrt safety and profit.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:13 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Are you aware of how the NTSB works?

Yeah, I've actually litigated it. The NTSB does a detailed job of telling you exactly what the effected corporation wants you to hear. I've gone to war over it in railroad collision cases, and it's a complete farce. The Working Groups create the Factual Reports upon which the ultimate Findings are based. And the Working Groups do their job behind a privilege found in 49 CFR 831 so you don't know how they get to their conclusions. But you can find the reports, and you will see that "interested organizations" get a seat at the table in the working group to putatively provide technical assistance in the fact-gathering, but really they end up white-washing what the corporation did/knew. You know who doesn't get a seat at the table? Representatives of those who die in these tragedies. So the families of the death sailors don't get access, input or representation. But TOTE will.

I know this from litigating these cases on behalf of people who died in tragedies and can demonstrate time and again that the Factual Reports of Working Groups contain fundamental and important inaccuracies that color the ultimate conclusion. And while NTSB does not punish with penalties, their findings and safety recommendations are hugely important about setting standards in their industries. And the NTSB has let industries off the hook with their findings. Instead of coming down harder and finding the real root cause, they focus on middling criticisms and spreading blame across multiple parties. If you look at grade-crossing accidents in this country for railroads, you can see how the NTSB has routinely let railroads off the hook going back to Fox River Grove in 1995. I have friends who do Jones Act work who say the NTSB does the same in sea tragedies.

The root cause of these tragedies is almost always the absence of a culture of safety in corporations where corporations put profit in front of safety. Instead of following the hierarchy of hazard control, they cut corners and those cut corners and profit-motivated decisions lead to tragedies. But instead of focusing on that, we'll criticism about over-reliance on weather modelling and the need for better radio communication and bad decision by the captain, etc. It's bunk.
posted by dios at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2016 [53 favorites]


dios,

Primary sources for the win.

Do you see much (or any) operational changes in response to the experiences of having to execute the whitewash? Like "OK, maybe we put better lifeboats on next time."
posted by effugas at 11:34 AM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


dios, do you have any insight on why it seems to work better for air travel safety than sea or rail? Commercial airline safety seems to be the gold standard, and rail a complete joke.. It's a bit of a puzzle from the outside.
posted by Chuckles at 11:36 AM on October 24, 2016


Man, I love Metafilter precisely because of informed commentary like dios's.
posted by emjaybee at 11:37 AM on October 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


... and backseatpilot's.

Personally, I think this thread should begin the campaign to vote the quidnunc kid head of the NTSB.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:41 AM on October 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


All this made me think of the München which vanished in early December 1978 in a storm. The München was a modern ship by one of the more prosperous German shipping companies; no corners likely cut there. Its sister ship later almost went down in a storm as well, so they could at least get some answers by looking at the damage, even though the München hasn't been found.

That disaster hit rather close to home; '78-'79 was my in-lieu-of-military-service-year which I did at the Bremen Seamen's Mission's hostel. Some of the sailors on the München had been our guests just before the ship departed, and also everyone of course knew everyone. List of missed seamen taped on the glass in the entrance hall, everyone crowding around it. Spooky days.
posted by Namlit at 11:42 AM on October 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


Do you see much (or any) operational changes in response to the experiences of having to execute the whitewash? Like "OK, maybe we put better lifeboats on next time."
posted by effugas at 1:34 PM on October 24


That's precisely the type of crap you will get. The probable cause determination will be to blame the captain and some other minor technical improvements. "Better lifeboats" would help, no doubt. But that's bad safety engineering and not the root cause. They should be trying to identify the root cause of the tragedy and using the highest solution on the hierarchy of safety/hazard control. The root cause of this tragedy is not "failure to have better life boats." The root cause is that you had this old boat going into a condition it was not prepared to meet. Putting better life boats on an un-seaworthy boat is bad safety engineering (but it is precisely what the the type of criticism the NTSB will make). The best safety engineering is that you eliminate that hazard by taking the boat off the water and enforcing a culture of safety. But that is a danger to the financial bottom line of the industry, so that's not what the NTSB hammers on.

dios, do you have any insight on why it seems to work better for air travel safety than sea or rail? Commercial airline safety seems to be the gold standard, and rail a complete joke.. It's a bit of a puzzle from the outside.
posted by Chuckles at 1:36 PM on October 24


First off, I'm not sure the NTSB process does work all that much better for air travel--I think may ultimately seem different because the industry's goals are different. In my (candidly) limited experience with airplane investigations, I think the NTSB almost always lays a large part of probable cause determination on "pilot error." They'll say things like the pilot didn't go through the checklist or made a mistake. That *may* be true. But my guess is that it is the same with airline investigations as it is with railroad/sea in that the pilot error is masking a more systemic problem: inadequate training, lack of oversight, lack of redundancy, failure to implement expensive technological failsafes (e.g., in rail, the NTSB first mentioned something like Positive Train Control over 25 years ago, the railroads have dragged their feet in implementing it because it is expensive even though it would go along way to eliminating "human error" accidents). If you are blaming pilot error when the pilot was put into a position to fail, that's not root cause safety analysis.

But, setting that aside, my guess is that airline travel is the "gold standard of safety" because financial incentives drive more safety innovations in the airlines. Airlines have to be safe or else people won't fly. Railroads and cargo ships are all about getting stuff from A to B at the cheapest rates. So they have very different profit motivations. So the motivation is the same (profit) but the mechanism for obtaining it is different (being safe and cheap vs. being fast and cheap). I think an implicit understanding of the industries' goals permeate the whole culture of regulatory oversight.
posted by dios at 12:10 PM on October 24, 2016 [21 favorites]


Part of the article doesn't make sense to me: first, it explains the Jones Act requirement that "vessels hauling cargo between American cities must be domestically registered," then two paragraphs later states "shippers began registering their boats in foreign countries to get around Jones Act requirements."
posted by exogenous at 12:12 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Those are US shippers to foreign ports. If you are hauling cargo between American cities you still must be American flagged.
I always thought it was a little strange that the US navy was spending US taxpayer money on preventing piracy around the horn of Africa when almost no US flagged vessels operated there.
posted by Bee'sWing at 12:52 PM on October 24, 2016


Here's the NTSB's footage of the wreck. SFW but spooky. It rests at a depth 2000 feet deeper than the Titanic.
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 1:00 PM on October 24, 2016


It's a little bit personal for me; the captain was from the town where I live. The sea being deadly is a fact of life for a lot of Mainers, and a lot of people who knew captain and crew are quite defensive about their competence.
posted by theora55 at 1:34 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


No mention of life boats, emergency beacons, or survival suits that could have kept the crew alive?


LIfeboat's a bit of a misnomer. The common saying is you should climb UP to a lifeboat. If your ship isn't that far down , then you stay on board.
posted by ocschwar at 6:00 PM on October 24, 2016


US navy was spending US taxpayer money on preventing piracy around the horn of Africa when almost no US flagged vessels operated there

Correction: Those are container ships hauling cargo containers full of US flags, not US flagged vessels.
posted by dhartung at 5:52 PM on October 25, 2016


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