The Pathos of El Faro's Final Hours

Across 500 pages of transcript drawn from the sunken freighter’s bridge, crew members question the decision to sail into Hurricane Joaquin and gradually grasp their perilous situation.

A vigil of hope at Maine Maritime Academy for the missing crew of El Faro on October 6, 2015.
A vigil of hope at Maine Maritime Academy for the missing crew of El Faro on October 6, 2015. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

Few forms of literature carry quite the mix of feelings that a National Transportation Safety Board docket does. The federal commission produces reams and reams of evidence on each accident it investigates, much of it rendered in dry, technical language and buttressed by pages of mechanical data. But these reports also tell the story of people’s deaths, sometimes in excruciating detail.

On Tuesday, the NTSB released a transcript of audio recordings from the bridge of El Faro, the freighter that sank near the Bahamas in October 2015, after sailing into Hurricane Joaquin. Over more than 500 pages of transcript, the ship’s sinking unfolds. Anyone reading it knows from the start it will end with the deaths of all 33 sailors aboard. But the characters in the drama don’t know of their impending fate until the last moments, though some of them clearly had their hesitations. Although the NTSB redacts conversation that isn’t pertinent, the transcript captures small talk that lays bare the crew’s hesitations, the captain’s frustrations, and the day-to-day tensions in any workplace.

The NTSB has not yet drawn any conclusions about why the freighter sank. Such sinkings are extremely rare today. But the boat sailed directly into the path of the hurricane, and the recordings, as well as previously known phone calls that Captain Michael Davidson made to land, show that the vessel began listing and was taking on water, and that El Faro lost power before sinking. Davidson gave the order to abandon ship, but the sailors, equipped with life vests, immersion suits, and open life rafts and open lifeboats, must have stood little chance in the middle of a howling hurricane. Although rescuers spotted what they believe was one body in an immersion suit, they were unable to recover it, nor were bodies of any of the other sailors found.

As the drama opens, it’s 6:35 a.m. on September 30, and Davidson and Chief Mate Steven Shultz are discussing what course to pursue as they head north, toward the hurricane. They puzzle at the storm’s name. Davidson had been a captain for 10 years and worked at Tote Marine, El Faro’s owner, for three. Shultz was new to the boat, having arrived in August.

“Should I be scared?” Shultz asks. There’s no clear answer. It’s one of the many moments of foreshadowing in the transcript. A few minutes later, Davidson looks up. “Oh, look at that red sky over there,” he says. “Red in the morning, sailors take warning. That is bright.” They chat about ways to skirt the storm, and Davidson chuckles at nervous types who might be worried.

Later that morning, Third Mate Jeremie Riehm is chatting with another sailor on the bridge. “We’re gonna get slammed tonight,” he warns. They keep talking, as Riehm complains about staffing issues on the boat and the impossibility of getting competent electricians to join the crew. The sailor agrees, but adds that El Faro’s current crew is one of the more competent and less tension-ridden ones he’s worked on. “This is just a breath of fresh air from what I'm used to,” he says.

Around 9:20 a.m., the captain is back on the bridge. “This ship is solid, it’s just all the … associated bits and pieces … . The hull itself is fine—the plant, no problem,” he says. “We’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make it.”

An hour later, Riehm and the sailor chat about the shock that early Spanish sailors crossing the Atlantic must have felt at discovering hurricanes, and the impossibility of explaining them to people back home. “Yeah, they said no one believed ’em– the survivors that told ’em about it in Spain—they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. We know what storms are.’ No, you don’t know what this storm’s like or even what this is.”

Just before noon, Second Mate Danielle Randolph is speaking with a sailor on the bridge. They discuss why the ship is headed off course, and question Davidson’s decision. “Think he’s just trying to play it down because he realizes we shouldn’t have come this way,” she says. A few minutes later, another possibility enters into play: pressure to arrive at a certain time. “Who cares what time we get there as long as we get there?” Randolph says. Around 3:30 p.m., the pair discuss El Yunque, a sister ship that was steering away from the storm.

“Nobody in their right mind would be driving into it,” the sailor says.

“We are,” Randolph says, to laughter. “Yaaay!”

Pressure to complete the journey quickly has emerged as a common theory for why El Faro headed right into the teeth of the storm. Davidson’s friends and family have said he was a conscientious, safety-minded sailor, citing an incident during his tenure at a previous company when he had refused to sail a ship he thought wasn’t seaworthy, setting off a quarrel with management. But that incident might have cut both ways. Davidson was no longer so young, and he was hoping for promotion to a newer, fancier boat, Rachel Slade reported in a definitive piece in Yankee in September. “He interviewed for the position in May, and was awaiting an answer when he arrived in Jacksonville in September,” Slade wrote. “If Davidson didn’t get the promotion, he would probably follow the old boat through the Panama Canal back to Alaska, where it was slated to do the Northwest route once again.”

What Davidson didn’t know is that Tote, the company that owned El Faro, had already decided to install younger captains on the new ships, Slade wrote. He might have been hoping to impress Tote, not knowing it was too late. His apparent frustrations with management show in a conversation with Randolph, the second mate, around 2 p.m. He explains that he’s asked the Tote office for permission to change course.

“It used to be just, ‘We’re doing it. You people are sitting in your office behind a desk and we’re out here—we’re doing it,’” Randolph says.

“Well I’m extending that professional courtesy because it does add a hundred and sixty nautical miles to the distance,” Davidson replies.

That 160-nautical-mile figure seemed to haunt Davidson. He repeats the number several times in conversation with Shultz, the chief mate, around 4 p.m. He keeps saying he wants to ask before he changes course. (Tote told the Associated Press that the company had no say in route.) Despite the reservations of the second and third mates ( Randolph and Riehm, respectively), it eventually becomes clear that El Faro is going to keep heading through the storm, though Davidson decided to take the Old Bahama Channel, a slightly different path. When a sailor asks if they might turn around, Davidson rules it out flatly. But the decisions on the bridge were in part hobbled by rapidly changing forecasts.

“We’re gonna get our ass ripped,” a sailor says at 5 p.m.

At 7 p.m., Davidson and Shultz are again on the bridge together. Davidson is talking about discussions with the company about when he can take vacation. Both men seem apprehensive about management.

“I hear what you’re saying, captain. I’m in line for the chopping block,” Shultz says. “I’m waiting to get screwed.”

“Same here,” Davidson answers.

Still, Davidson and Shultz don’t evince any anxiety about the storm, at least in their words. It’s the lower-ranking members of the crew, and particularly Randolph, who sense the danger facing them. But in the hierarchical, almost military environment of a ship, the captain holds authority, and there’s little questioning him.

Around 9:30 on the evening of September 30, a sailor and Third Mate Riehm are discussing their predicament.

“Oh man, if you gotta divert if that hurricane veers quickly—how much time do you have to, you know, when it's set up—if you gotta duck inside?” the sailor asks.

“Well, right now, we got nowhere to go. You would have to—but later on there’s a gap in the chart—you can head south,” Riehm says. “It's a good idea to have a— really, ideally—what you should have is another alternate—you should have a backup route...”

“Yeah right,” the sailor says. “There's no escape plan.”

An hour passes.

“Guess I'm just turning into a Chicken Little but I have a feeling like something bad is gonna happen,” Riehm remarks.

At 11:30 p.m., the sailor tells Riehm he’s laid out his immersion suit and life jacket.

“We don't have any options here,” Riehm says. “We got nowhere to go.”

“Jesus man—don’t tell me anymore. I don’t even wanna hear it,” the sailor answers. They laugh a little bit. Riehm does an Elmer Fudd impression.

The storm rolls on, and so does the boat. At 1:40 a.m. on October 1, Randolph indulges some gallows humor.

“Usually people don't take the whole umm—uh—survival suit-safety meeting thing very seriously,” she says. “Then it's, ‘Yeah, whatever. It fits,’ but nobody actually sees to see if their survival suit fits. I think today would be a good day for the fire and boat drill—just be like, ‘So we just wanna make sure everyone’s survival suit fits,’ and then with the storm people are gonna be like, ‘Holy shit. I really need to see if my survival suit fits—for reaaal.’”

By 3:45 a.m. or so, the sound of an alarm informing the crew that the ship is off course is sounding regularly. The crew is struggling to keep the boat where they want it because of the waves and wind. At 4:10 a.m., the captain tries to buoy spirits.

“There’s nothing bad about this ride,” Davidson says. “Sleeping like a baby.”

“Not me,” Shultz replies.

“What? Who’s not sleeping good? Home come?”

Shultz replies with a string of expletives.

At 5:15 a.m., an engineer notes that the ship is listing badly, more than he’s ever seen it. “Only gonna get better from here,” Davidson says.

It’s almost possible to believe him, to take heart in his courage and imagine that somehow El Faro will make it through. That makes it even more of a gut-punch when, at 6:12 a.m., Davidson says, “I’m not liking this list.” A minute later: “I think we just lost the plant,” the ship’s power. But he assures the crew that they’ll get it back up and running.

At 6:55 a.m., Davidson makes a telephone call:

It’s miserable right now. We got all the uhh—all the wind on the starboard side here. Now a scuttle was left open or popped open or whatever so we got some flooding down in three hold—a significant amount. Umm, everybody’s safe right now, we’re not gonna abandon ship—we’re gonna stay with the ship. We are in dire straits right now. Okay, I’m gonna call the office and tell ’em [expletives]. Okay? Umm there’s no need to ring the general alarm yet—we’re not abandoning ship. The engineers are trying to get the plant back. So we’re working on it—okay?

Just after 7 a.m., Davidson calls to report a marine emergency.

At 7:15 a.m., he tells a crew member, “Wake everybody up. Wake ’em up,” but insists, “We're gonna be good.”

At 7:27, he gives the order to ring a general alarm across the whole ship. At 7:28, on the UHF radio, he says he wants to make sure everyone has their immersion suits. At 7:29, Davidson gives the order to abandon ship.

In the final minutes of the recording, Davidson pleads with a sailor to move.

“We gotta move. You gotta get up. You gotta snap out of it and we gotta get out,” he says.

“Okay,” the sailor answers. “Help me.”

“You gotta get to safety,” Davidson shouts.

“Help me,” the sailor cries. “Help me.”

“Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Work your way up here,” the captain says. He refuses to leave.

“I can’t. I’m a goner.”

“It's time to come this way,” Davidson shouts. Then the recording stops.

The transcript is one of the most gripping things published this year, and yet it feels uncomfortably voyeuristic to catch this glimpse into the last moments of these people’s lives. It’s a little like watching a snuff film. Despite an extensive search effort, no human remains from the ship’s 33 crewmembers have been recovered. One lifeboat was recovered, badly damaged, while the other was eventually found on the sea floor, with one half shorn off. Even finding the audio recording was difficult. It was only in April that the recorder was found, after pressure from Senator Bob Graham of Florida (no relation to this writer), and only in August that it was recovered.

It’s unclear when the NTSB might release its conclusions, though as the Miami Herald notes, the information released so far seems to point toward a focus on the difficulty of forecasting Hurricane Joaquin, whether the ship was receiving up-to-date forecasts, and the condition of El Faro. Until then, we’re left with the haunting transcript of the ship’s final hours.