When the cargo ship El Faro set out from port in Jacksonville, Fla., en route to Puerto Rico, there was little indication of trouble. A gathering weather system named Joaquin was still just a tropical storm. But within days, Joaquin had swelled into a major hurricane — and a broken El Faro lay almost three miles below the surface of the sea, along with all 33 members of its crew.
On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded its long investigation into the 2015 disaster, voicing some criticism of the ship's captain but reserving most of its censure for the safety protocols that allowed an unfit freighter to ply the waters.
Capt. Michael Davidson failed to change course to safer routes "despite three calls to his quarters indicating that the El Faro was heading into a storm," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in his opening remarks to a board meeting on the agency's preliminary findings, which are expected to be approved Tuesday afternoon. He added that Davidson evinced "light regard" for his crew's suggestions and relied too much on "outdated" weather information provided through a commercial software program.
The drama of the ship's final 26 hours was captured on a transcript of data recovered from the wreckage last year.
"But," Sumwalt added, "the vessel's course was not the only issue."
The board's draft findings, which cap roughly two years of investigation and span more than 400 pages, placed much of the blame for the sinking with deficient safety procedures, the vessel's age and its inadequate renovation. They noted that the ship, which first sailed in the 1970s, was not up to modern standards in a variety of ways.
Among those issues was the El Faro's use of open lifeboats. Regulators have been trying to phase out such lifeboats for enclosed ones since the '80s because they "did not provide adequate protection," one investigator told the meeting. The El Faro, as an older ship, had been grandfathered into the new safety protocol, presuming the ship ensured that its open lifeboats were kept up.
Photographic evidence suggests the El Faro's lifeboats were never launched. But amid Joaquin's tossing waves and high winds, the investigator said, "the open lifeboats would not have provided protection even if they had been launched."
The NTSB also found fault in general with the U.S. Coast Guard's compliance program that OK'd the El Faro — a finding that also has implications for other older vessels. As the NTSB noted in one of its draft findings, the program "is not effective in ensuring that vessels meet the safety standards required by regulations, and many vessels enrolled in the program are likely to be operating in substandard condition."
All told, Sumwalt expressed optimism that long-lasting lessons might be learned from the deadly incident.
"This report will be studied by mariners young and old for many years," he said in his opening statement, "and I'm confident that this tragedy at sea, and the lessons from this investigation, will help improve safety for future generations of mariners."