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'Into The Raging Sea:' Author Examines 'Mistakes' That Led To El Faro Disaster

Courtesy Rachel Slade

The sinking of the containership El Faro two-and-a-half years ago is the subject of a new book by Rachel Slade called "Into The Raging Sea." Slade, who appeared Thursday on Maine Public’s Maine Calling, talks with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about why she wrote a book on the catastrophe, which claimed the lives of several Maine residents, including the ship’s captain.

GRATZ: Good morning to you.

SLADE: Good morning, thank you for having me.

GRATZ: Let me first refresh everyone's memory: El Faro was a 40-year-old ship running between Jacksonville, Florida and Puerto Rico. On Oct. 1, 2015, it sailed nearly into the center of Hurricane Joaquin and sank. All 33 crew members aboard were lost. Four, including Capt. Michael Davidson, were from Maine. Five were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. Rachel, why did you write this book?

SLADE: I guess the real answer to that question is, like everybody else, when we first heard about the sinking of El Faro I wanted to know: What the hell happened? I mean, how could - in this day and age - we lose a 790-foot American container ship just, really, off the coast of the Bahamas? How does that happen? I needed to know.

GRATZ: You were able to document conversations, to locate people on the ship. It's a remarkable amount of detail, considering no one survived. How is that possible?

SLADE: The American government spent more than $3 million acquiring the voice data recorder, first locating it, and then sending out to other missions to survey where it was, and then, finally, using a robot to retrieve it from the ocean floor. And there was a chip on there, and they carefully took the chip off and put it through a player. They could not believe what they had - 26 hours of audio recorded on the bridge up until the very last minutes. And now what we have is a 500-page transcript. I read it with mariners who had been on that ship only a week before, including Charlie Baird, who's right here in South Portland, Maine. I took that and I went to the families and started to piece things together to understand what kinds of people work on American ships. Who are these folks? And who, specifically, were these people who we lost?

GRATZ: Did El Faro have to sink? Did its crew have to die?

SLADE: Absolutely not. No. And that's what makes this such a tragedy. There were so many mistakes made along the way. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard both put most of the blame on Capt. Michael Davidson, who was from Portland, Maine. But there were so many other problems, both with the ship and with the shipping company, that you cannot find a villain here. You cannot fully assign blame to any one entity.

GRATZ: Based on the investigation that it did, did the National Transportation Safety Board make recommendations?

SLADE: Yes, they did. And, unfortunately, these are just recommendations. In order for anything like shipping to change you need to turn that into regulation, into law. And that's what the admiral at the Coast Guard is looking at right now. So he considered all the recommendations and it's up to him and his group to decide what to turn into law. And, unfortunately, it doesn't change mariners’ lives for a long time.

GRATZ: This was your first book. I'm just curious as to what you thought when the process was over, writing about something in such detail, perhaps emotionally connecting to it the way you may have.

SLADE: This book was an obsession. It wasn't a book for me. It was a calling. I feel it's hard to imagine kind of going back in and taking on another topic at this point because I kind of feel emotionally drained. I'm really moved by the work that people did to try to solve this mystery and make the world better for mariners.

GRATZ: Rachel Slade, the author of “Into The Raging Sea,” Thank you very much, appreciate it.

SLADE: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure.

Rachel Slade will appear Thursday on Maine Calling.  The call-in program airs from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Maine Public Radio.