Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hope had mourning on

Hope had grown grey hairs/Hope had mourning on/Trenched with tears, carved with cares/Hope was twelve hours gone.*

For 33 families, hope officially died tonight.

Earlier this evening, at sunset, the U.S. Coast Guard called-off the search for survivors of El Faro, a 790-foot, 42-year-old cargo ship that now, we must be certain, sank in 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas sometime late last week.

The complete loss of a large cargo ship in domestic service is not something one expects to hear in 2015. 

Weather forecasts, real-time communication, lifesaving technology and training all have conspired to make mariners’ lives magnitudes safer now than ever before in the ancient history of seafaring.

How the hell did this happen?

We know a couple of things, and can make educated guesses about a couple of others.

We know that the storm that became Hurricane Joaquin was precocious and unpredictable. It strengthened rapidly between the time El Faro left Jacksonville, Fla., and the time the ship was lost.  Forecast tracks were all over the place.

We know that the ship lost propulsion at some point, and we can guess – based on the master’s last known communication to his office – that the vessel was taking on water.

We know that a vessel of that size and type, dead in the water and at the mercy of 100-knot winds and 40- or 50-foot waves is liable to lie beam to those seas and roll profoundly, perhaps catastrophically.

We can guess that a 42-year-old ship, heavily laden, might break-up given sufficiently violent environmental forces.

Investigators will, in the coming weeks and months, definitively answer many of those questions. The Coast Guard has a pretty good idea of where the ship went down. That agency and the National Transportation Safety Board, with whom they will share the investigation, have the means to retrieve El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder, or VDR (a ship’s equivalent to an airliners “black box”).

It is the most natural thing in the world, for all of us, to want to know a reason and even more than that, to be able to lay the blame for such a tragedy at the feet of someone: the captain who shouldn’t have sailed, the shipping company that should have provided more modern lifeboats or should have let the schedule slide (Tote Maritime, the vessel owner, has to all public appearances, behaved laudably during this tragedy), the National Hurricane Center forecasters who should have better predicted the storm’s path.

Let’s not, okay?

Merchant shipping does not come to a standstill for weather. It does routinely route around the fringes of a storm. From all accounts, the ship was in good condition and had recently passed both Coast Guard and ABS safety inspections. 

There is ample evidence that the master of the vessel was well-trained, seasoned, and not a jerk.

The meteorologists in Miami are keenly aware, I’m sure, that lives depend on their getting it right, and they typically do a damned fine job.

It is cold comfort to 33 families and countless friends, but the investigation will provide answers to both the why and how of this disaster. Those answers may drive changes that make the always-risky** business of going down to the sea in ships just a little bit safer.

It is only because of previous disasters that we now have load lines, EPIRBs, survival suits and the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program.

Speaking of the United States Coast Guard, from everything I can see, they (and the U.S. Navy and Air Force and merchant mariners aboard company-chartered tugboats) did a hell of a job under very difficult conditions.

They gave everything they had – literally risked their lives in those early hours -- to try to find the crew of the El Faro. When they suspended the search this evening*** I am quite certain that their frustration and disappointment was second only to that felt by the families of the missing.

Merchant mariners, a pretty gripey lot to begin with, especially love to kvetch about the Coast Guard in both its regulatory and lifesaving functions. We say they are either too picky in a safety inspection or not picky enough because owners are exerting their influence.

We complain that the licensing scheme is a Gordian knot of red tape and the evaluators at the National Maritime Center a bunch of nincompoops. We huff that sectors are too slow or too clueless to do more than direct or repeat radio traffic when there is a casualty.

Those are some of our complaints, a few of which are based on real challenges facing that overburdened and underfunded service. Not least of which is the diversion of critical search and rescue funding and assets to dubious “homeland security” missions.

But tonight and without reservation, hats off and thank you to those brave men and women.

For the families of the men and women of the El Faro, tonight my heart breaks for you. My prayer is that you will find peace and comfort and that your mariners will be remembered with love and admiration.

Crew of the SS El Faro as provided by TOTE Maritime:

Louis Champa
Palm Coast, Florida
Roosevelt Clark
Jacksonville, Florida
Sylvester Crawford Jr.
Lawrenceville, Georgia
Michael Davidson
Windham, Maine
Brookie Davis
Jacksonville, Florida
Keith Griffin
Fort Myers, Florida
Frank Hamm
Jacksonville, Florida
Joe Hargrove
Orange Park, Florida
Carey Hatch
Jacksonville, Florida
Michael Holland
North Wilton, Maine
Jack Jackson
Jacksonville, Florida
Jackie Jones, Jr.
Jacksonville, Florida
Lonnie Jordan
Jacksonville, Florida
Piotr Krause
Mitchell Kuflik
Brooklyn, New York
Roan Lightfoot
Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Jeffrey Mathias
Kingston, Massachusetts
Dylan Meklin
Rockland, Maine
Marcin Nita
Jan Podgorski
James Porter
Jacksonville, Florida
Richard Pusatere
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Theodore Quammie
Jacksonville, Florida
Danielle Randolph
Rockland, Massachusetts
Jeremie Riehm
Camden, Delaware
Lashawn Rivera
Jacksonville, Florida
Howard Schoenly
Cape Coral, Florida
Steven Shultz
Roan Mountain, Tennessee
German Solar-Cortes
Orlando, Florida
Anthony Thomas
Jacksonville, Florida
Andrzej Truszkowski
Mariette Wright
St. Augustine, Florida
Rafal Zdobych

*Wreck of the Deutschland, Gerard Manley Hopkins

** 23 fatalities per 100,000 – twice as high as police officers (11.1 per 100,000) and three times higher than firefighters (7 per 100,000). By comparison, loggers and commercial fishermen rank at the top of dangerous occupations, with fatality rates topping 100 per 100,000.

***In all likelihood, the survival window for many of the victims of the sinking closed some time earlier. The Coast Guard uses a sophisticated modeling program, developed for them by the U.S. Army, called the Probability of Survival Decision Aid, or PSDA. The actual computer program is not, so far as I know, available to the general public, but some good technical descriptions of how it works are, here and here. I note with some personal satisfaction and relief that fat guys do far better than skinny guys when dumped in the ocean.

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