Panicked crewmembers on the doomed El Faro cargo ship urged Captain Michael Davidson to change course to avoid a powerful hurricane, but transcripts of shipboard audio released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Dec. 13 reveal the captain twice ignored their warnings and took the ship on a collision course with the storm.
Part of the transcripts depicts frenzied chaos and despair as some of the 33 crew members realize their fate on the morning of Oct. 1, 2015. An exchange between the captain and one crew member attempting to reach the bridge in the ship’s final moments ends abruptly at 7:40 a.m. as the 790-foot cargo ship sank about 50 miles east of San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.
The ship, owned by Tote Services Inc., plied a regular path from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and back.
The NTSB has been investigating the El Faro’s sinking, one of the worst U.S. maritime disasters in several years. A team consisting of NTSB officials, U.S. Coast Guard authorities, and representatives of Tote Services listened to the 26 hours of shipboard audio several times, with many statements being reviewed more than 100 times. The efforts produced 1,100 pages of transcripts, an NTSB record.
Investigators are trying to determine why the Captain disregarded the warnings of his crew, including his highest level officers, and despite weather reports that showed the ship would meet the hurricane within hours unless it changed course.
According to The Florida Times-Union, Captain Davidson went to his cabin around 8 p.m. on Sept. 30. He received several concerned calls throughout the night about deteriorating weather conditions, including one from second mate Danielle Rudolph at 1:01 a.m. advising him to change course. The captain eventually returned to the navigation bridge just after 4 a.m. Oct. 1.
By that time, the crew was starting to experience the effects of Hurricane Joaquin, a category 3 hurricane with winds of 100 mph. Loud crashing noises can be heard on the ship’s audio, the NTSB noted. The noises progressively worsened as the ship listed in heavy seas and lost its cargo as well as its propulsion before it started to flood.
Captain Davidson tried to encourage and calm the crew as the ship took on water. “Yeah — yeah — yeah — get into your, get into your rafts! Throw all your rafts into the water!” he yelled before ordering the crew to abandon the ship.
“Everybody — everybody get off! Get off the ship! Stay together!”
Captain Davidson and a helmsman were still on the bridge when the audio recording cut off.
The El Faro sank to a depth of about three miles. All crew members were lost at sea. Only one body was eventually recovered.
Several of the deceased crewmembers’ families have settled wrongful death and negligence complaints with Tote Services.