When the cargo ship El Faro sank in October of 2015, it was the worst maritime disaster for U.S. ships in decades. All 33 people on board were lost as the ship sank during a storm in the waters near the Bahamas. The ship and her crew were on the way from Florida to Puerto Rico during a standard cargo run. Now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has finally released multiple recommendations to improve the safety of cargo shipping after an extensive and arduous investigation of the tragedy.
The Faro Sank Due to Captain Error
The shipping run from Jacksonville, Florida to Puerto Rico was a regular trip for El Faro, occurring at least once a week. In October 2015 the ship left Florida just two days before Hurricane Joaquin formed in the Caribbean. The ship should have changed course. Based on all available information at the time, the captain should have made the decision, but instead, he sailed directly into the storm. The ship lost propulsion and sank.
The long and thorough investigation of the sinking found that the captain was using out-of-date information about the storm, that he ignored suggestions from other crew that he change course, and that he waited too long to order the crew to abandon ship. The result was that the ship and entire crew were lost.
Findings and Recommendations
While better choices by the captain of the El Faro could have averted the full tragedy, the NTSB investigation uncovered numerous issues that led to the incident and the deaths of all aboard. The investigation, which took more than 30,000 hours and cost more than $5 million, also came up with several recommendations that would improve safety across the U.S. shipping industry. The findings included several factors that contributed to the tragic accident:
- The company did not adequately oversee the running of the ship.
- There was inadequate management on the bridge.
- There were issues with the company’s safety management system.
- The cargo holds flooded.
- The ship lost propulsion during the storm.
- The ship had no damage control plan.
- There was downflooding through the ventilation closures.
- There were not enough suitable survival craft on the ship.
As a result of the findings in the investigation, the NTSB has made several recommendations for all shipping in the industry. A very important recommendation is that all ships have closed lifeboats in adequate numbers on board. The open life craft on the El Faro were likely not adequate for the crew in the storm, even if they had abandoned ship on time.
The NTSB has also made numerous other safety recommendations, many of the technical. These include requiring ships to have high-level bilge alarms in cargo holds, changes to propulsion systems to prevent propulsion loss in an emergency, requiring that all crew undergo bridge management training, and requiring that all ships have damage control plans on board.
When the NTSB makes recommendations like these, they do not become law or required. They remain recommendations only, but they do help to guide changes in the maritime industry. The U.S. Congress may use the recommendations to create new laws that improve safety, and other organizations like the U.S. Coast Guard, take the recommendations seriously and often implement them. If changes can be made because of the tragedy of the El Faro, safety could be improved for everyone throughout the industry.