Navy Confirms Location of El Faro
The U.S. Navy and the NTSB have publicly confirmed the location of the sunken merchant ship El Faro. The Navy tug Apache, using the remotely operated submersible CURV 21, obtained a positive identification of the lost vessel, according to statements from the Navy. The Apache continues to search for the ship's data recorder and for other clues to the vessel's sinking.
On October 31, the NTSB announced that the crew of the Apache found an object suspected to be El Faro using sidescan sonar, located in 15,000 feet of water some 35 miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas. This update confirms the identity of the object seen on sidescan sonar as that of the El Faro.
Claudette Riley, sister of El Faro crew member Mariette Wright, 51, welcomed the discovery of the wreck but said the potential recovery of the data recorder "brings a whole new wave of sadness." She said she was afraid of what it might reveal "about how scared they all must have been."
Riley said she and her family were not optimistic the Navy would be able to recover the remains of crew members at such a depth.
The El Faro, which went down with all hands during Hurricane Joaquin on October 1, was bound for Puerto Rico at the time of the accident. All 28 American and five Polish nationals aboard are presumed dead, and four lawsuits have been filed by surviving family against TOTE Maritime, the owner and operator of the El Faro.
Tote filed for liability protection in a federal court in Florida on Friday, citing U.S. maritime law and saying the ship was "seaworthy and properly manned" and that the company bears no responsibility for its loss.
Naval architects speaking to the Portland Press Herald said that they suspected the El Faro sank when flooding reached its open vehicle decks. They said that the vessel may have fallen victim to the “free surface effect,” in which a relatively small volume of water may greatly reduce vessel stability if allowed to flow across the breadth of a large compartment. This effect has figured prominently in earlier maritime disasters involving ro/ro ships, which by design often have large loading doors below main deck level and open interior compartments for vehicles. In previous instances, the rapid loss of stability due to the effect led to a swift capsizing of the vessel.
The experts' comments, while still unconfirmed by evidence from the wreck, appear consistent with available information about events aboard the El Faro at the time of the disaster. The vessel's final communication noted the failure of a scuttle, a hull breach, and flooding; this call was the last heard, followed by radio silence.