THE LASTHOURS OF EL FARO

Soundings - - Contents -

An epic tragedy awaited El Faro and her crew of 33, as she steamed to­ward a col­li­sion with Hur­ri­cane Joaquin.

Just be­fore 6:00 a.m. Danielle Ran­dolph, the sec­ond mate, ap­pears at the bridge com­pan­ion­way. “Hi, how are you, Cap­tain?” she says brightly. “How are you?” David­son replies. He sounds happy to see her, but his ques­tion, like hers, is rit­ual. Both of­fi­cers know how they are, and it’s not so hot. David­son, as al­ways, puts a bright face on the sit­u­a­tion:

“A scut­tle popped open and there’s a lit­tle bit of water in three­hold. They’re pump­ing it out now.”

The bridge tele­phone rings. The chief en­gi­neer now asks the cap­tain to re­verse his ear­lier move and turn the ship back to star­board, bring­ing the wind on the port side again to re­sume the star­board list. Ap­par­ently the list to port causes worse prob­lems than a tilt the other way.

What is pretty cer­tain is that, ei­ther by study­ing gen­eral di­a­grams or through a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of how in­take pipes are al­ways set higher to avoid suck­ing in dregs col­lected in the low­est parts of a sump, Pusatere and his crew have a good idea of what must be go­ing on. They un­der­stand that, with a strong list, any ver­ti­cal gap be­tween in­take and sump bot­tom will shal­low the pool of avail­able oil; and that a pipe off set to one side means that a list the other way will slosh the oil even far­ther away from the in­take, com­pound­ing the prob­lem. Since the in­take pipe is set to star­board, they need to turn the ship back in that di­rec­tion, put waves and wind to port again, to re­gain a star­board list.

“Bring it back, roll back over to star­board,” David­son tells the helms­man. “Keep her right twenty.”

“Rud­der right twenty,” says Hamm, the able sea­man at the wheel.

Chief mate Shultz comes back from 2nd Deck, con­firms the scut­tle is se­cured. He vol­un­teers to re­turn to the cargo holds. David­son agrees. “We need eyes and ears down there.”

One of the radars has crapped out. Ran­dolph bends over the set, ad­just­ing, re­boot­ing. Soon the screen glows with the im­age of the is­lands the ship has left be­hind. She plots the ship’s po­si­tion off San Sal­vador.

The wind, chang­ing an­gles as El Faro turns slowly to star­board, rips some­thing else loose. “There goes the lawn fur­ni­ture,” Ran­dolph says. “Let’s hope that’s all.” It’s the first time David­son’s words have be­trayed any glum­ness.

Ran­dolph quickly of­fers, “If you don’t need me, you want me to stay with you?” “Please,” David­son replies. “It’s just,” he con­tin­ues, “it’s just the …” But he’s in­ter­rupted by the walkie-talkie’s call-up tone. Shultz has gone down to the en­gine room and is check­ing in from there, and David­son asks him to tell the engi­neers to re­verse the ballast pro­ce­dure, fill the star­board ramp tank now to help with the gen­eral aim of bring­ing the ship’s tilt back to star­board. The chief mate con­firms, “Port to star­board ramp tank.” “I’m not lik­ing this list,” David­son tells the bridge at large. And at that mo­ment the world changes. The on­go­ing pulse of en­gines deep be­low, the sem­piter­nal trem­ble of deck and join­ery that is the sign, tac­tile as much as au­di­tory, that El Faro’s heart is beat­ing, her en­gines driv­ing her and all her peo­ple in the di­rec­tion they’re sup­posed to go in, be­gins to fal­ter. Slows in rhythm. Fades, at last, to noth­ing. In the alien, deadly si­lence that fol­lows, the shriek of Joaquin against the win­dows, against the hull, grows to deaf­en­ing vol­ume by con­trast.

“I think we just lost the plant,” David­son says.

Of course Joaquin is not sen­tient. Of course this storm has not cho­sen El Faro and her peo­ple out of some an­i­mistic per­ver­sion, some sick need to de­stroy and kill a wor­thy ves­sel and a crew of thirty-three de­cent, hard­work­ing hu­mans; pro­fes­sion­als,

fam­ily peo­ple con­nected to a wide web of wives, chil­dren, par­ents, friends; all as in­no­cent as peo­ple can be who go to sea know­ing the dan­gers they face, the hubris all mariners in some way com­mit by bet­ting they can al­ways, suc­cess­fully, pit wits and tal­ent against some­thing so vast. Melville writes in Moby

Dick, a book that’s all about man’s hubris on great wa­ters, “For ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will in­sult and mur­der [man], and pul­ver­ize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nev­er­the­less … man has lost that sense of the full aw­ful­ness of the sea which abo­rig­i­nally be­longs to it.”

Yet to any­one track­ing Joaquin and El Faro to­gether over the last two days, a sense of aw­ful­ness must come; for the storm’s aura of ill in­tent seems only to deepen. By six in the morn­ing of Oct. 1 the hur­ri­cane — still drunk on over­heated ocean, still trash­ing wind shear, still fol­low­ing the up­per-level air­flow — has been ze­ro­ing in on El Faro’s track for forty- eight hours straight. When the ship’s en­gine shuts down, Joaquin’s cen­ter is a mere twenty-five miles to the south­east; the op­po­site di­rec­tion from that which David­son ex­pects, as if the storm were de­lib­er­ately try­ing to lunge un­der his guard. El Faro, dis­abled and help­less, lies al­most within the eye, in­side its cir­cle of strong­est winds.

Joaquin is now ap­proach­ing Cat­e­gory 4 sta­tus, winds av­er­ag­ing 115 knots, gust­ing to 130 — close to 150 mph. Most hu­mans in such winds would be blown off any­thing they clung to, and what they clung to would be ripped off sea or ship or earth and hurled af­ter them. The waves rou­tinely reach heights of twenty, some­times thirty feet; oc­ca­sion­ally, a wave will reach close to fifty feet, the height of a five-story build­ing, a dark mass of water streaked like a rib-eye steak, only in­stead of fat vein­ing the liq­uid flanks, these are white ten­dons of wa­tery fury stretched by the mas­sive en­ergy of wind; and the wave tops are im­pos­si­ble to see, for that same wind is shear­ing off the waves’ sum­mits and us­ing them to rocket some mat­ter that is nei­ther sea nor air but an abra­sive mix of spume and salt water, a slur­ried ganache of surf that will rip clothes from the body and drown the very breath in your throat. On El

Faro, even as what mo­men­tum she has left keeps her head­ing, tem­po­rar­ily, close to the wind, spume abrades ev­ery un­shel­tered sur­face, and waves must now con­sis­tently blast over Main Deck, crash­ing against the con­tainer stacks, the breeze­way, and bot­tom of the house.

Sec­ond Deck has be­come part of the sea, a surg­ing tu­mult of black water and phos­pho­res­cent ed­dies.

And Joaquin is not done.

On the bridge noth­ing much has changed ex­cept that the storm now lashes the star­board win­dows harder and the deck is tilt­ing even more the other way, to port, as El Faro drifts on, her great length now lined up with the vast and deep­en­ing troughs of Joaquin’s rollers. Hamm, at the wheel, is try­ing to tweak the ship’s head­ing. More spray must be get­ting into the wheel­house: white noise from fry­ing elec­tron­ics fills the area. David­son tells the chief mate to shut down some of the elec­tric­ity pan­els so water won’t short them out.

Shultz men­tions pos­si­ble dif­fi­cul­ties with pump­ing more than one hold — if the ballast pump sucks air, he sug­gests, it, too, could wind up shut­ting down.

Sud­denly David­son’s re­serves of optimism are suck­ing as dry as the lube-oil pump. “Don’t think it’s get­tin’ any bet­ter,” he says, of the list most likely; maybe of ev­ery­thing else that has gone so badly wrong.

Ran­dolph has been do­ing the sec­ond mate’s job: nav­i­gat­ing,

All right, let’s go ahead and ring it— ring the ‘aban­don ship’

star­ing at the work­ing radar screen, the GPS re­peater. “We’re drift­ing south­west,” she tells the cap­tain now.

Mathias, the rid­ing crew su­per­vi­sor, calls from the en­gine room with a gen­eral ques­tion about how things are go­ing (“It’s lookin’ pretty nasty,” David­son says); and a more spe­cific query about the down-flood­ing an­gle, the an­gle of heel at which ven­ti­la­tion in­takes on 2nd Deck, nor­mally well above any con­ceiv­able wave ac­tion, will be un­der­wa­ter, at which point the en­gine room will start to flood. It’s not just a tech­ni­cal ques­tion: if the en­gine room starts to flood, the ship will sink. It’s more like Mathias is ask­ing how long El

Faro has to live. “Um, that I don’t have an an­swer for ya,” the cap­tain says. Mathias sug­gests dig­ging out in­for­ma­tion in the chief en­gi­neer’s of­fice, which no­body has time to do right now; and even if they tried they would be un­suc­cess­ful, since Tote’s sparse sta­bil­ity guidelines in­clude no in­for­ma­tion about down­flood­ing an­gles, or even where flood­ing might oc­cur.

Clearly the list is go­ing from bad to worse, and the rate at which it’s get­ting worse is speed­ing up. Al­though David­son tells Mathias, “We still got re­serve buoy­ancy and sta­bil­ity,” the next thing he says is “All right, we’re gonna ring the gen­eral alarm here and get ev­ery­body up. … We’re def­i­nitely not in good shape here.

“Just make a round on two-deck and see what you can see,” he tells Shultz. “This isn’t get­tin’ any bet­ter.” Then, ever so­lic­i­tous of his crew: “You all right?”

“Yeah,” Shultz says. “I’m not sure I wanna go on sec­ond deck. I’ll open a door down there and look out … chest­deep water.”

The chief mate fights his way down the stairs, which must now be tilt­ing like a fun-house cor­ri­dor. David­son calls him up al­most im­me­di­ately on the walkie-talkie.

“Hey, chief mate. This is just a heads-up. I’m gonna ring the gen­eral alarm. Get ya muster while you’re down there. Muster all, mate.” Then David­son rings the en­gine room with the same mes­sage: “We’re not gonna aban­don ship or any­thing just yet, all right? We’re gonna stay with it.

“Yeah, all is fine,” David­son con­tin­ues, with a flash of his old optimism, “… but let ev­ery­body know I’m gonna ring the gen­eral alarm.” Then he turns to the sec­ond mate and shouts, “Ring it!”

A high-fre­quency ring­ing erupts through­out the bridge — through­out the ship. A fa­mil­iar sound at noon, when it’s al­ways tested; the sound of dan­ger, fear, a damn se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion at any other time, and es­pe­cially when the ship is tilt­ing in this way, so ob­vi­ously sick, jerk­ing like some­one hurt, while what can be seen and heard through port­holes and win­dows speaks of some­thing in­sane out­side, crazy dan­ger­ous, wind and sea gone into a whole other state, sick with sense­less fury. Adrenaline surges, pulse spikes. The stom­ach, if not al­ready up­set by the ship’s rolling, cramps with ten­sion. Any­one still asleep will be jack­knif­ing out of his or her bunk at this point, half­way ejected to port if his bunk is to star­board, ears numb from the alarm, stum­bling against the list and foul move­ment, grop­ing for the light switch, throw­ing on pants and T-shirt, fum­bling out the life jacket, sur­vival suit. In the corridors peo­ple are yelling. The first re­flex of most mariners, af­ter grab­bing life vest and Gumby, is to pound on their bud­dies’ doors, make sure they’re up. The sec­ond is to get to the muster sta­tion: em­barka­tion deck, which is the engi­neers’ level, two flights up from the mess, one from the crew’s quar­ters. Mov­ing as fast as pos­si­ble on a deck that feels like it’s lust­ing to be­come ver­ti­cal bulk­head, a wall; hang­ing on to rail­ings with one hand, Gumby with the other, try­ing not to be knocked on your ass when the ship rolls hard — it takes time to put on a sur­vival suit, you have to lay it flat on the deck and drag it on one leg at a time, like pulling on farmer johns made of thick rub­ber, no easy task; might as well get to muster sta­tion first and await or­ders?

Shultz is on the em­barka­tion deck yelling at ev­ery­body to muster on the star­board side. Muster sta­tion for half the crew is nor­mally to port, but that side is close to the water and the deck there is reg­u­larly be­ing cleared by waves.

David­son’s voice crack­les from the chief mate’s walki­etalkie. “Yeah, what I’d like to make sure, ev­ery­body has their im­mer­sion suits and, uh — get a good head count.”

On the bridge a mid-fre­quency beep­ing sounds in­sis­tently; it will never quit. Ran­dolph is look­ing out a win­dow; from some­where there’s enough light to see the deck through the storm waves now wash­ing the con­tain­ers or loom­ing moun­tain­ous against the canted win­dows. “All right, I got con­tain­ers in the water!” she yells.

“All right,” David­son yells back. “All right, let’s go ahead and ring it — ring the ‘aban­don ship.’ ”

For the first time in her life the sec­ond mate does what no mariner ever wants to do: she smacks the brightly col­ored but­ton that sig­ni­fies the ship is lost. A shrill bell, dif­fer­ent from the gen­eral alarm, starts to clang, seven times in a row, then an­other seven — and keeps on clang­ing. “Tell ’em we’re goin’ in!” David­son calls. “Can I get my vest?” Ran­dolph asks the cap­tain. “Yup,” David­son says. “Bring mine up, too, and one for Frank.”

“I need two,” Hamm says — is the big AB ac­tu­ally jok­ing in this? marks; and El Faro be­gins to die.

El Faro could have taken the North­west and North­east Providence chan­nels, and fi­nally Crooked Is­land Pas­sage, to es­cape Joaquin’s clutches.

El Faro, seen from the stern, lists 25-de­grees to port in this com­puter-gen­er­ated im­age. At such an an­gle, lash­ings on con­tain­ers would start to snap, and loose con­tain­ers would add strain to their neighbors’ lash­ings in a per­ilous domino ef­fect.

El Faro on a pre­vi­ous voy­age. The open ports on 2nd deck are clearly vis­i­ble along the hull’s side. On her last trip, con­tain­ers were stacked four-deep across al­most the en­tire ship.

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