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El Faro Transcripts Show Crew Urged Captain to Change Course

U.S. Navy
The stern of the of the sunken freighter El Faro on the seafloor, in 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas.

PORTLAND, Maine - The events leading up to the sinking of El Faro were made clearer today by the release of transcripts from the ship's voyage recorder.  Among other things they show is that the crew tried unsuccessfully to get the captain to change course. 

The National Transportation Safety Board released what it said was an "unprecedented" 500 pages worth of transcribed conversations and sounds heard on the voyage recorder.  The Safety Board's Jim Ritter summarized its content for reporters. It shows that around 11 o'clock the night before the sinking, the third mate offered to get Capt. Michael Davidson, of Windham, the latest forecast.

"About 11:14, the third mate called back and informed the captain that he estimated that at 4 a.m. they would be 22 miles from the center of the hurricane, and he indicated that the storm's maximum winds were forecast to be 100 nautical miles per hour," Ritter said. "During the phone call, the third mate suggested to the captain that they could head south at 2 a.m. to get more distance from the storm. After the phone call ended, the third mate indicated to another crewmember on the bridge, that the captain seemed to think they would be south of the storm and the winds would not be an issue.  And the ship's planned course did not change."

About two hours later, the second mate called Davidson to talk about the deteriorating weather, but Davidson told him to stay on course. In the next few hours, El Faro's pitch and roll motions increased.

About 4:37 on the morning of the sinking, a call warned the captain of potential oil level problems. Just before six, he took a phone call about possible flooding in a hold. By six, he was turning the ship to counter a list. "About 6:13 a.m., the captain indicated that the vessel had lost propulsion," Ritter said.

The safety board has yet to conclude exactly why the El Faro sank, but Chairman Christopher Hart says this moment may have been critical.

"That puts them in a defensive situation," Hart said. "I hate to characterize what they should and should not have gone through.  The lost propulsion, which created huge challenges to the vessel."

Another safety board official, Brian Curtis, detailed the capacity that was lost. "Having propulsion, you can nose into the storm or configure yourself to the most advantageous tot he storm.  When you lose a propeller, the vessel loses the ability to maneuver and you are at the mercy of the seas and the wind."

Just before 7:30 a.m. a general alarm was sounded to alert the crew. Seconds later, the captain says to someone over a telephone "we're definitely not in good shape right now.

After that, the ship's condition deteriorates rapidly.  The captain is heard discussing  an abandon ship order.  That goes out at 7:29.  A minute later the ship's bow is reported down. 

The last 10 minutes of the recording is a  frantic exchange between Capt. Davidson and a helmsman he was trying to help escape from the bridge.  "I need a ladder," the helmsman calls at one point. "We don't have a ladder," Davidson replies.  A minute later, the helmsman calls out "I'm a gonner."   "No you're not," Davidson yells back. 

Finally, there's what the safety board describes  as the sound of building low frequency rumble.  Davidson yells out to the helmsman "it's time to come this way." There's more yelling and the recording ends.  It's 7:39 a.m.

Davidson, three other Mainers, and 29 other sailors are lost as El Faro sinks. Safety Board Chairman Hart says an analysis of the disaster, and what might prevent one like it will come later.