During a visit to the home of my parents in Jacksonville, Fla., my father, a World War II veteran, asked to visit the cemetery where he will be buried. It’s on the opposite side of the county-wide metropolitan area, so on the way, we decided to stop near the Jacksonville seaport on the St. John’s river.
After crossing the massive Danes Bridge — one of the largest harp-designed cable-stayed bridges in the nation — we found a road to a small park along the St. John’s River. Tugboats tooted by. Picnic tables offered a great view of the shipyard.
On one side of the small park was a line of 33 short steel posts — bollards, which are anchor points for mooring lines for ships — bolted to a cement pad and linked together with a chain.
Quaint personal mementos were placed at each bollard — a toy fishing rod, a bottle of beer, a poem, flowers, a snowglobe with a miniature lighthouse, an angel statue, a flag, and a mariner’s cap. Each featured a photograph and a small bronze plaque. “There will never be a day you are not loved and remembered.” “May you rest at sea. Forever 23. You are loved eternally.”
The poignant memorial in this quiet cove under the concrete canopy of the Danes Bridge is dedicated to the 33 crew members of the El Faro cargo ship who perished during Hurricane Joaquin, five years ago, on October 1, 2015.
‘Forever In Our Hearts’
It was the largest maritime disaster in more than three decades. Sailing out of Jacksonville to San Juan Puerto Rico, a weekly run for the freighter, El Faro was torn apart by the violent 120 mph winds and towering 40-foot waves. It was found three miles deep near the Crooked Island in the Bahamas, about 450 miles from Miami. No bodies have ever been recovered.
At Dames Point Park, the El Faro Memorial was dedicated to the crew on the first anniversary of the tragedy, when a tall hand-cast copper replica of a lighthouse was unveiled with the names of the crew: “Forever in our hearts” (El Faro is Spanish for “lighthouse”). From Danes Point, you can see the shipyards where El Faro would have been docked before its tragic departure. A private service for families is held each Oct 1.
Those who attended in the past include the widow and twin daughters of ship engineer Keith Griffin — the girls were born four months after the shipwreck. Determined to keep Griffin’s legacy alive, their mother gave each daughter “Keith” as a middle name.
Each family suffered grievously. Crew members included young married couples with children, young adults, spouses, grandfathers. They waited more than two years, until Dec. 2017, for the final report from the National Transportation Safety Board investigation of what happened on that fateful voyage.
While my family headed to the cemetery, holy ground for our nation’s soldiers, the families of the El Faro crew had nothing but memorial bollards on a small slice of land along the St. John’s River. It was the last land their loved ones had seen before heading out into open waters on that fateful voyage.
One Last Run
Five years ago on Tuesday, Sept. 29, El Faro left port in Jacksonville at 8 p.m. for its 1,200-mile weekly voyage, with a scheduled arrival in San Juan on Friday, Oct. 2.
The ship carried $2 million worth of cargo, including 294 cars, trucks, and trailers below deck, and 391 containers on its top deck. The journey was scheduled to be one of the last runs before a major retrofit.
El Faro was a 790-foot freighter built in 1975. At 40 years of age, she was an old ship. Between 2003 and 2005, she carried troops and cargo during the Iraq War. Then she was owned by TOTE Services.
About 90 percent of worldwide trade travels by sea. Puerto Rico gets most of its supplies by ship, bringing everything from milk to Mercedes Benzes to the island. It’s a competitive shipping route and the delivery must be timely to be profitable: meeting the ship in port, trucks pick up goods to avoid spoiling and storage fees. If El Faro missed its run, store shelves sat empty, an economy suffered, and TOTE lost money.
‘In Line For the Choppin’ Block’
At 53 and having sailed oil tankers to the notoriously rough Alaskan ports, El Faro Captain Michael Davidson was an experienced seaman. He knew altering a course — adding miles and fuel costs — could jeopardize his future with the company.
Two months earlier, Davidson took a 160-mile detour to avoid Tropical Storm Erika. He was overheard telling his chief mate on the El Faro that he was “in line for the choppin’ block,” which could be one reason he left port saying of Joaquin when it was a tropical storm, “We’re just gonna go out and shoot under it.”
By 8:00 a.m. on Sept. 30, about 12 hours after El Faro had left port, Joaquin became a hurricane. A Category 4 hurricane hadn’t tracked through the Bahamas since 1866, but Joaquin, rapidly intensifying, was defying the odds. The National Weather Service issued warnings about the danger, but Captain Davidson kept his ship headed southeast on a direct route to Puerto Rico across the open ocean while the hurricane headed southwest.
One reason Davidson failed to correct course is that he was relying on old weather forecasts. While the crew followed timely updates from the National Weather Service, Davidson relied on Bon Voyage, a dated subscription service purchased by TOTE that processed global weather data, producing a forecast in the form of colorful weather maps over which a ship’s course could be plotted.
By the time the data was processed, however, it could be six or more hours old — well-past obsolete when dealing with a raging hurricane. Complicating matters was that Davidson did not always download the maps in a timely manner.
Ignoring the Warnings
The tragedy of El Faro was a mystery for more than two years. It took 10 months to locate and retrieve the voyage data recorder from the broken wreckage 15,000 feet underwater. While the voyage data recorder helped investigators piece together the last 26 hours of the doomed voyage from recordings on the bridge, it took another 15 months before the NTSB released its findings.
NTSB issued 53 safety recommendations but laid the bulk of the blame on Davidson for relying on old weather data and for failing to consider alternative courses. Three shipmates were tracking the weather with National Weather Service readings and tried to warn him about the magnitude and trajectory of the storm.
As early as 11 a.m. on Sept. 30, Third Mate Jeremie Riehm remarked that the ship was on a collision course with the storm. Second mate Danielle Randolph, at 34 a seasoned mariner, suggested alternate southern routes through the Old Bahama Channel, but the captain was not having it. Raised in a military family whose motto was “suck it up,” Randolph watched Joaquin gain strength, with waves rising higher and winds roaring.
At 3:34 a.m. the captain came to the bridge, telling the crew the storm was something he experienced “every day in Alaska.” Randolph went to her room for a quick rest and to send a quick email to her mother. “Don’t know if you’ve been hearing, we’re in really bad seas and really bad wind. There’s a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it, Category 3, last we checked. Love to everyone.”
‘Where I Want to Be’
After three hours battling the brutal storm and seas with winds recorded at 120 mph, the battered old ship began to finally break down. Water poured into the hold, cargo slammed, and El Faro leaned into a 15-degree list. The extreme tilt caused the engine’s lubricating oil to flow away from the pump that was meant to circulate it. Then the engine quit.
Around 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, less than 30 hours after the ship had sailed from Jacksonville, the United States Coast Guard received a satellite notification that the vessel had lost propulsion. On the voyage data recorder, the voices were calm despite the horror. At 7:29 am, the captain gives the order to lower lifeboats and abandon ship, and about a minute later can be heard on the bridge calling out, “Bow is down, bow is down.”
Months earlier, Randolph had texted pictures of El Faro’s lifeboats to her mom. “Is that your lifeboat? It’s open,” her mom replied. A coastal Mainer, Laurie Bobillot knew open lifeboats to be a thing of the past. “Let’s hope you never get into some rough seas,” she wrote, “because you know kid, you’re screwed.”
“Yes, I know,” Randolph replied. “Mom, if I ever die at sea, that’s where I want to be.”
The plaque at her bollard reads: “Danielle Randolph. At sea is where I always want to be.”
Crew members of El Faro:
- Louis Champa Jr.: Daytona Beach, Fla.
- Roosevelt Clark: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Sylvester Crawford Jr.: Lawrenceville, Ga.
- Michael Davidson: Windham, Maine.
- Brookie Davis: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Keith Griffin: Fort Myers, Fla.
- Frank Hamm: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Joe Hargrove: Orange Park, Fla.
- Carey Hatch: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Michael Holland: North Wilton, Maine.
- Jack Jackson: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Jackie Jones, Jr.: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Lonnie Jordan: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Piotr Krause: Poland.
- Mitchell Kuflik: Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Roan Lightfoot: Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
- Jeffrey Mathias: Kingston, Mass.
- Dylan Meklin: Rockland, Maine.
- Marcin Nita: Poland.
- Jan Podgorski: Poland.
- James Porter: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Richard Pusatere: Virginia Beach, Va.
- Theodore Quammie: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Danielle Randolph: Rockland, Maine.
- Jeremie Riehm: Camden, Del.
- Lashawn Rivera: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Howard Schoenly: Cape Coral, Fla.
- Steven Shultz: Roan Mountain, Tenn.
- German Solar-Cortes: Orlando, Fla.
- Anthony Thomas: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Andrzej Truszkowski: Poland.
- Mariette Wright: St. Augustine, Fla.
- Rafal Zdobych: Poland.