The worst thing facing the captain of the El Faro when he sailed his 790-foot container ship from Jacksonville, Florida, on Sept. 29 was a tropical storm more than 400 miles from the Bahamas.
Within a day, that had changed. The storm named Joaquin quickly grew to become a Category 3 hurricane strong enough to snap trees. And by Oct. 1, as Joaquin descended on the ship, it had become a Category 4, with 120-mile-per-hour (193-kilometers-per-hour) winds strong enough to tear the walls off a house and capsize a giant ship filled with containers.
The last thing heard from the El Faro: A single ping from the ship’s emergency radio beacon, said Joseph Murphy, a ship’s captain and a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay who has studied the incident.
The Coast Guard and the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, say they believe the El Faro sank in the deep waters near the Crooked Islands, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation Tuesday into the loss of the vessel. Searchers combing the area have found only one crew member’s body, among 33 believed to be on board, as well as a battered lifeboat, containers from the ship and an oil sheen on the surface.
“It only sent one beep so you know something really dramatic occurred there,” Murphy said in an interview Monday. He said the ship probably capsized soon after losing its propulsion.
Two of the academy’s graduates were members of the El Faro crew, according to the school’s Facebook page. The president of Maine Maritime Academy said on Facebook that four graduates of that school had been identified in news reports as being crew members, but the school couldn’t confirm it.
Coast Guard flight crews took off at first light today to hunt for survivors.
Hurricane Joaquin battered the Bahamas, and then turned northwest, moving away from the U.S. coast. It raked Bermuda with heavy winds before drifting into the central Atlantic, now rated as a Category 1, the lowest hurricane level.
The El Faro was “robust enough to handle” a tropical storm en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to Murphy. But a hurricane of Joaquin’s size and intensity requires everything to go right to survive it, he said. When a big storm hits, the normal response is to turn into the wind,“reduce speed and ride out the storm,” Murphy said.
The El Faro, though, couldn’t do that, he said. In the last message sent by its crew, the sailors advised that the ship had lost propulsion and was listing badly.
“It was basically just bobbing around,” Murphy said.
Murphy said he isn’t sure there is anything the El Faro could have done to escape Joaquin once it was at sea. The storm was moving southwest through the week at about 6 miles per hour. With rough seas — a Coast Guard flight reported 40-foot waves — it’s doubtful the El Faro could have outrun it.
“It’s not like you’re in the car and you are going to put the pedal to the metal,” he said. “Basically he was stuck out in the middle, and there was no place to avoid the storm.”