On October 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin, the US-flagged cargo ship SS El Faro sank
in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Island, Bahamas.
All 33 people on board perished. El Faro was owned by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and operated
by TOTE Services, Inc. Damages from the sinking were estimated at $36 million. Before the loss of El Faro, the last comparable US maritime disaster was the sinking of the US bulk carrier
Marine Electric off the coast of Virginia in February 1983, in which all but three of the 34 persons
aboard lost their lives.
We determined that the probable cause of the sinking of El Faro and the subsequent loss of life was the captain’s insufficient action to avoid Hurricane Joaquin, his failure to use the most current weather information, and his late decision to muster the crew. Contributing to the sinking was ineffective bridge resource management on board El Faro, which included the captain’s failure to adequately consider officers’ suggestions. Also contributing to the sinking was the inadequacy of both TOTE’s oversight and its safety management system. Further contributing factors to the loss of El Faro were flooding in a cargo hold from an undetected open watertight scuttle and damaged seawater piping; loss of propulsion due to low lube oil pressure to the main engine resulting from a sustained list; and subsequent downflooding through unsecured ventilation closures to the cargo holds. Also contributing to the loss of the vessel was the lack of an approved damage control plan that would have assisted the crew in recognizing the severity of the vessel’s condition and in responding to the emergency. Contributing to the loss of life was the lack of appropriate survival craft for the conditions.
As a result of its investigation, we made recommendations to the Coast Guard; the Federal Communications Commission; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the International Association of Classification Societies; the American Bureau of Shipping; Furuno Electric Company, Ltd.; and TOTE Services, Inc.