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Legal Blog

Investigation Highlights Safety Issues in Maritime Industry

The sinking of the cargo ship El Faro on October 1, 2015 was the worst American maritime disaster in decades. The ship sank between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico after losing power during Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm. All 33 sailors aboard the El Faro perished. At the Krist Law Firm, P.C., our maritime injury lawyers believe the El Faro disaster could result in the push for higher safety standards in the U.S. maritime industry.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted an over two-year investigation into the incident, based in part on 26 hours of audio recordings recovered from the wreck lying 15,000 feet below the surface. The NTSB report concluded that poor decision-making and lackluster safety protocols led to the disaster. The same conditions may exist on many other U.S. ships, raising concerns that another sinking might occur in the near future.

Why Did the El Faro Steam Right Into a Category Three Storm?

On September 29, 2015, Captain Michael Davidson departed Jacksonville, Florida and set a course that led the El Faro into the eye of Hurricane Joaquin. The NTSB did not blame the captain’s decision for the disaster. Instead, they blamed the fact that Captain Davidson relied on an email-based weather forecasting system. Unbeknownst to him, this system contained hours-old data.

As a result of using the older data, Captain Davidson failed to appreciate the severity of the storm and was unaware of its precise location and trajectory. He thought he had set a course that would skirt the storm, but instead, he sailed right into it. Captain Davidson should have relied on online updates from the National Hurricane Center, which offered a more accurate picture of the situation. The NTSB also pointed to the captain’s failure to listen to crewmembers who suggested a change in course.

The El Faro Disaster Reveals Safety Gaps in the US Maritime Industry

The NTSB report places the bulk of the blame for the tragedy on a weak corporate safety culture with the El Faro’s owner, TOTE Maritime, and the forty-year-old ship’s unseaworthiness. Specifically, the NTSB believes the following facts led to the sinking:

  • The El Faro’s anemometer (wind gauge) was broken, adding to the crew and captain’s lack of situational awareness.
  • TOTE Maritime did not train its employees on heavy weather situations and flooding.
  • The crew may have left a hatch open during the storm, which let water into hold.
  • Owing to a regulatory loophole for older ships, the El Faro carried open top lifeboats, which would not have enabled the crew to survive in heavy seas.
  • El Faro was equipped with an old emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) that didn’t transmit global position system coordinates, which delayed the search and rescue effort.

These facts read like a recipe for disaster, but the El Faro passed several safety inspections shortly before it sank.

Should the U.S. Maritime Industry Raise its Safety Standards?

As a result of the El Faro disaster, the NTSB issued 53 non-binding safety recommendations. According to Fordham Law School maritime law professor and retired U.S. Navy Captain Larry Brennan, the sinking highlights the need for stronger measures. On the disaster, Brennan said, “El Faro was a worn, aged ship which succumbed to heavy weather in large part because of multiple unseaworthy conditions, poor leadership and bad decisions by the captain, ABS, the owners as well as inadequate surveys and inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Our Houston Maritime Lawyers Can Help

Injury and loss of life at sea have been realities of the maritime profession for thousands of years, but this is no reason to accept dangerous conditions in the modern age. Shipowners have a duty to ensure that their vessels are seaworthy, and that the officers in control of the ship are trained to deal with situations such as those that led to the sinking of the El Faro. At The Krist Law Firm, P.C., we have a proven track record of holding shipowners accountable when disaster strikes.

If you or a loved one has experienced a maritime injury, contact us today at (281) 283-8500 for a free case evaluation with our Houston maritime lawyers.