BY JENNY STALETOVICH
Haunting new images of the El Faro resting 15,000 feet deep in the Caribbean could help investigators determine how much age and the notorious instability of its design played in sending the cargo ship to a watery grave as it sailed into a fierce hurricane last year.
Video and photos, released late Sunday, show the ship’s hull sitting largely intact and upright on the ocean floor, stripped of its two-story bridge and cargo.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators, who are studying the video, have not yet determined exactly what caused the ship to go down in October as it tried to dodge intensifying Hurricane Joaquin en route to Puerto Rico from Jacksonville. The video shows a breech in the hull but lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy told the Associated Press on Sunday that investigators have ruled out a major structure failure as the cause of the El Faro’s sinking.
Instead they are focusing on decisions to sail toward a major hurricane Joaquin and on the bridge structure, part of which came to rest a half mile away.
“The issue with the detachment of the upper two decks, we’re looking at that carefully,” he said.
In his final communication with ship owner TOTE Inc. the morning of Oct. 1, Capt. Michael Davidson said the ship had lost forward propulsion, had blown a hatch, was taking on water and listing at 15 degrees. Despite warnings from the National Hurricane Center that Joaquin would likely strengthen, Davidson planned to sail south of the storm.
A crew of 33, including five polish engineers working on retrofitting the ship for a move to the northwest, all died. It was the deadliest commercial shipping loss off the U.S. coast in decades. Only one body, clad in a survival suit, was found but not recovered in the rough seas.
For some families, the new images offered some hope at finding answers but also stoked painful questions about why the ship continued sailing into the storm and whether it was fit to do so.
“With each day comes a little more evidence, but forces everyone to relive the emotional nightmare of the situation. To be honest, I believe a lot of people are still in a state of disbelief,” said Coral Gables attorney Scott Wagner, who is representing the families of two crew members.
At 40 years old, experts say the El Faro had far outlived its normal life expectancy. The ship was a roll-on, roll-off cargo ship, meaning tractor trailers carrying containers simply drove onto the ship for transport. Such ships, experts say, are dangerously prone to instability in rough waters.
Without the ship’s orange voyage data recorder, which was attached to the ship’s mast and remains lost, investigators may never know exactly what happened and whether the storm’s fierce waves toppled the ship or whether engine failure caused the listing ship to sink. Or both. Roth-Roffy told the AP the search for the black box may resume.
Investigators, who invited 60 Minutes aboard the U.S. Navy ship Apache as they conducted the search for a segment that aired Sunday, were unavailable to answer questions Monday.
But experts say the video could provide valuable clues.
In the early 1990s, the ship was lengthened by 90 feet to 790 feet. Joe Farrell, CEO of Resolve Marine, an international salvage and emergency response company based in Fort Lauderdale, said that probably explained the El Faro’s unusual double-decked navigation bridge.
Because a captain and crew must be able to see at least 100 meters in front of the bow, an additional upper deck was probably added to increase visibility, he said. That work also could have added to the vessel’s instability, he said.
“You normally don’t see a deck house like that come apart. You see them crushed or mangled, but you won’t see them completely come off,” he said.
Roll-on/roll-off ships, called ro-ros in the industry, can also be dangerously unstable in rough seas, Farrell said. Trucks are typically chained down but can come loose if there’s any slack as they bounce around on rubber tires.
“There’s an old saying: loose gear sinks ships,” he said.
Once loose, the trucks could have easily punctured the hull. Ro-ros often don’t have air-tight compartments, meaning one breech could sink the entire ship.
“Ro-ros are pretty notorious. Once they start to flood, forget it,” he said. “Ro-ros are not the best things to be on when they start to take on water.”
Ro-ros taking on water are also more likely to roll over in rough seas as the water sloshes around, said Kirk Greiner, maritime consultant and former U.S. Coast Guard commander.
“Once you get water in there you have a problem with stability,” he said. “As the vessel rolls the water goes to that side and the weight shifts off the center line. So its entirely possible it did capsize.”