Investigators Find Out Why The El Faro Cargo Ship Sank NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer about the investigation of how the El Faro cargo ship and its crew sank after sailing into Hurricane Joaquin.

Investigators Find Out Why The El Faro Cargo Ship Sank

Investigators Find Out Why The El Faro Cargo Ship Sank

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NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer about the investigation of how the El Faro cargo ship and its crew sank after sailing into Hurricane Joaquin.


In the early morning of October 1, 2015, the 790-foot cargo ship El Faro began taking on water as it sailed into Hurricane Joaquin, at that time a Category 3 storm in the Bahamas. A little after 7 a.m., the ship's captain, Michael Davidson, made an emergency call to shore.


MICHAEL DAVIDSON: I have a marine emergency, and I would like to speak to a QI. We've had a hull breach. A scuttle blew open during that storm. We have water down in three holds with a heavy list. We've lost the main propulsion unit. The engineers cannot get it going. Can I speak with a QI, please?

SIEGEL: A QI is a qualified individual, an emergency point person that shipping companies must have onshore. Within the hour, all contact with El Faro was lost. The ship was found a month later 3 miles under the sea. All 33 crew members on board died. The Coast Guard spent the last two years investigating what went wrong and why an experienced captain sailed his ship directly into the eye of a hurricane. It released its findings last week. And joining us now is Captain Jason Neubauer, who chaired the Coast Guard's investigation. Welcome to the program.

JASON NEUBAUER: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: A year after El Faro was found, its voyage data recorder was retrieved. That's like the black box on a plane. It records what happens on the bridge. What did the recording tell you about the ship's final hours?

NEUBAUER: The recording actually gave us 26 hours of bridge audio data that we used to kind of recreate the last day of the vessel's voyage.

SIEGEL: And do you hear anybody saying, we shouldn't be going in this direction; there's a hurricane out there?

NEUBAUER: There were conversations, including the officers on board and some of the able seamen that were at the helm of the vessel. Several crew members were voicing concerns very early on from the voyage data recorder started recording.

SIEGEL: And what does the captain say?

NEUBAUER: The captain was confident that they could get south of the storm and not experience the full force.

DAVIDSON: Obviously we know what happened in the end, so we know that that was not the right calculation. Was it a reasonable - I mean, based on experience, was it a reasonable calculation by the captain, or was it an unreasonable one?

NEUBAUER: Well, the board determined that, especially with an erratic storm like Hurricane Joaquin was, that it was imprudent to make that decision.

SIEGEL: The ship, El Faro, was a steam ship from the 1970s, and the report found problems with its safety protocols. Is this accident shining a light on the practice of grandfathering, meaning that old ships - this would be an old ship - don't have to meet modern safety standards unless they undergo a major reconstruction? Shouldn't old ships be precisely the ships that need to be updated?

NEUBAUER: That's the board's determination, that there has been some grandfathering. One of those big issues is the open lifeboats that the El Faro had.

SIEGEL: Open lifeboats.

NEUBAUER: Yes, Sir. That's the older-style lifeboat, including one that was hand-propelled.

SIEGEL: Did the crew of El Faro board lifeboats? Did they try to take the lifeboats?

NEUBAUER: The lifeboats - from our analysis and then from experts looking at them, it looks like they were never taken out of the cradle.

SIEGEL: As a Coast Guard officer, have you been at sea in a hurricane?

NEUBAUER: No. I've been at sea in heavy weather but not in hurricanes.

SIEGEL: It sounds pretty horrifying.

NEUBAUER: Yes. The board read some accounts from other mariners that have been in a hurricane. Some of the problems that occur is you can't see the surface of the water. You know, there's so much sea spray. And we think that under those conditions, it would be almost impossible to, you know, egress from the ship safely.

SIEGEL: Are there lots of other ships as old as El Faro out there?

NEUBAUER: We determine there are about 50 U.S.-flagged deep draft vessels that have the outdated or the older lifeboats arrangement.

SIEGEL: Do you come away concluding that the sinking of El Faro was a rare one-off event that reflected some very odd conditions and decisions, or is it something that we should take seriously as a - something that could go wrong with other older vessels out there?

NEUBAUER: I absolutely think that it could go wrong with other older vessels in the fleet. In this case, we had a nonstandard storm. You know, it formed - it was very unusual. It was late season. So I think if similar storms occur in the future, there's a possibility that another deep draft vessel could get caught and have to sail through.

SIEGEL: Captain Neubauer, thank you very much for talking with us.

NEUBAUER: Thank you for the opportunity to be here and also for covering this incident investigation.

SIEGEL: Captain Jason Neubauer was the chairman of the Coast Guard's marine board of investigation into the sinking of the El Faro in 2015.

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