Into the Raging Sea|
Thirty-three Mariners, one Megastorm, and the sinking of the El Faro
Ecco; Reprint edition, 2019, 416 pp, PB, $17.99
What happens when an unscrupulous shipping company hires a Captain to man a 790 ft forty year old steamship, a Captain who is afraid for his job. When that ship has no modern equipment such as covered life-boats and its technology had been grandfathered in since 1986. With a young crew afraid to challenge the Captain as he heads them into a hurricane. With no help and conflicting weather advisories, that ship is swallowed by the sea.
Slade's retelling of the tragedy of the El Faro, which sank in the Bahamas during hurricane Joaquin is largely based on the 26 hours of recordings from the ship, interviews with family members, and the transcript of the hearings from TOTE Maritime, El Faro's owners, and the Coast Guard. All of the dialogue in the book is from the recordings. It allows us to know the crew. They joke, laugh, they talk of loved ones at home. They complain about Captain Davidson when he seems so laissez-faire about the worsening weather. They have their quirks, and we see them.
The closer the ship gets to Joaquin, the tension is palpable. Second mate Danielle Randolph plots a course realizing they are on a collision course with the hurricane. Inexplicably Captain Davidson is asleep; he sleeps for eight hours during this pivotal time. This is the ships last night of contact.
It is clear that Davidson is partially to blame. It is documented that he was concerned for his job. He wanted to please the TOTE Maritime owners by shipping his goods to Puerto Rico on time. He was also not that well versed about his ship. He was unaware of vent openings, and the downflooding angle of El Faro. On top of this he relied on weather reports that were at least nine hours old. How could he even know where the hurricane was; except for the fact that his first and second mates tried to gently prod him into changing course.
The most insidious part of this story is that TOTE Maritime, the company that owned El Faro, tried to abdicate any responsibility at all. During the hearings after the accident they consistently held that they complied with all safety laws. But they had pushed back on refitting obvious mechanical and structural problems to save money on these older ships. Slate writes "One month before her final voyage an inspector wrote: " The front wall of the starboard boiler is in very bad shape. It is highly recommended that the front wall tubes as well as the brick including burner throats be renewed on both boilers, the brick is moving ...as a result can damage to the point of failure." Nevertheless TOTE Maritime sent El Faro out to sea. After skating through the hearing with high priced lawyers and double talk, the families were given a settlement. It was a slap in the face.
In an act of complete hubris and an unconscionable lack of humanity TOTE Maritime tried it again. TOTE Maritime sent El Yunque (sister ship to El Faro) to Alaska. The Coast Guard boarded her and using hammers checked the condition of her steel. "When they tapped at parts of El Yunque's ventilation trunks, their hammers went right through them. The steel had turned to dust."
During this story Slade also recounts the amazing efforts of the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard searched through the hurricane to find the El Faro; and their eventual recovery of the black box allowed invaluable insight into its last hours. And while Captain Davidson made many mistakes he was also a compassionate hero in the end. The last of the transcript between the Captain and his Helmsman:
"The Helmsman cried out. 'You're going to leave me.'
"I'm not leaving you. Let's go."
"I need someone to help me"
"I'm the only one here"
"I can't. I can't. I'm a goner."
"No you're not."
"Just help me."
"Frank, let's go, Captain Davidson said. "It's time to come this way."
Slade writes with the confidence of the journalist that she is. Into the Raging Sea is engaging, heart wrenching and honest. Her deep dives into maritime law, the origins of large shipping companies and the hierarchy of ships crews are illuminating. At heart, however, this is the story of the crew and family of those lost and it is handled with sensitivity.