Four Years Have Passed Since the Loss of the El Faro

Published Oct 1, 2019 5:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

Four years have passed since the El Faro sank on October 1, 2015, with the loss of all 33 on board. 

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a video last year summarizing its investigation. The video examines the NTSB’s determination of the cause of the accident and discusses associated recommendations to improve marine safety. It also highlights the three missions undertaken to retrieve the voyage data recorder and document the wreckage, which was found 15,000 feet beneath the ocean's surface. 

In February 2018, the NTSB released its final report on the tragedy. Like the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, the NTSB concluded that the accident was attributable to the master's decision to sail into Hurricane Joaquin, the vessel operator's "weak" safety culture and a poor implementation of Bridge Resource Management (BRM) principles. 

NTSB also noted technical problems with machinery design standards for sustained angle of inclination, a central factor in the El Faro's loss of lube oil suction and loss of propulsion; the limited protection of fire mains from impact damage in the event of a cargo shift, which was a likely factor in the flooding of El Faro's Hold 3; and the inadequacy of El Faro's antiquated open life boats, which were unlikely to be of assistance in a hurricane. 

A recent U.S. Coast Guard inspection campaign found that open lifeboats, the manually-propelled launches banned aboard ships built after 1986, are still in use aboard 45 American vessels. The count is equal to about one quarter of the listed U.S.-flag deep sea fleet. U.S. Coast Guard marine inspectors documented nearly 70 deficiencies on 35 of the lifeboats in service, including "visible cracks on the [lifeboat] hull, wastage on davits, delamination and cracking on various components, inoperable winches, and oil leaks," according to a final report. 

The U.S. Coast Guard says that it will continue to monitor the condition of the open lifeboats through annual inspections. Additionally, it plans to regularly evaluate crewmembers' proficiency and company maintenance programs to ensure lifeboats are serviceable.  

Open lifeboats do not have to meet SOLAS 1983 seaworthiness standards or propulsion requirements. After the loss of the El Faro, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended phasing them out aboard American ships. El Faro was exempt from the requirement for enclosed lifeboats due to her age, and while she underwent a major conversion in the 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard did not require her owner to upgrade her lifeboats to current standards as part of the process.

The evidence suggests that El Faro's crew did not attempt to use either of the ship's two lifeboats, but NTSB determined that crewmembers would probably not have been able to board or launch them due to the ship's heavy list. Even if they had launched successfully, NTSB concluded, the boats "would not have provided adequate protection" in the severe weather conditions on scene. 

The U.S. Coast Guard also undertook a review of its flag state marine inspection policies. It stood up a new Flag State Control Division at its Washington headquarters to oversee class society performance, and it conducted a risk assessment of all deep draft vessels in the U.S.-flagged fleet. According to Rear Adm. John Nadeau, the assistant commandant for prevention policy, this assessment has produced results. Speaking at the CMA 2019 conference in April, Nadeau said that 53 ships - nearly 30 percent of the U.S.-flagged fleet - were designated as "high risk" during a review last year and "targeted for additional oversight," meaning additional U.S. Coast Guard inspections.