The 790-foot, cargo vessel, S.S. El Faro, en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, sank on 1 October 2015, in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Joaquin, taking the lives of all 33 aboard.

“We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt.  “But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.”

Safety issues

  • Captain’s actions
  • Use of noncurrent weather information
  • Late decision to muster the crew
  • Ineffective bridge resource management
  • Inadequate company oversight
  • Company’s safety management system
  • Flooding in cargo holds
  • Loss of propulsion
  • Downflooding through ventilation closures
  • Need for damage control plan
  • Lack of suitable survival craft

Probable Cause

NTSB determines that the probable cause of the sinking of El Faro was the captain’s insufficient action to avoid Hurricane Joaquin, his failure to use the most current weather information, and his late decision to muster the crew. Contributing to the sinking was ineffective bridge resource management on board El Faro, which included the captain’s failure to adequately consider officers’ suggestions. Also contributing to the sinking was the inadequacy of both TOTE’s oversight and its safety management system.

The ship departed Florida on 29 September 2015, and had a range of navigation options that would have allowed it to steer clear of the storm that later became a Category 4 hurricane, NTSB noted. The captain, consulting outdated weather forecasts and ignoring the suggestions of his bridge officers to take the ship farther south and away from the storm, ordered a course that intersected with the path of a hurricane that pounded the ship with 35-foot seas and 100 mph winds.

As the ship sailed into the outer bands of the storm, about five hours prior to the sinking, its speed decreased and it began to list to starboard due to severe wind and seas. In the last few hours of the voyage, the crew struggled to deal with a cascading series of events, any one of which could have endangered the ship on its own.

Seawater entered the ship through cargo loading and other openings on a partially enclosed deck in the ship’s hull, pooled on the starboard side and poured through an open hatch into a cargo hold.  The hold began to fill with seawater, and automobiles in the hold broke free of lashings and likely ruptured a fire main pipe that could have allowed thousands of gallons of seawater per minute into the ship – faster than could be removed by bilge pumps.

About 90 minutes before the sinking, the listing ship lost its propulsion and was unable to maneuver, leaving it at the mercy of the sea. Although the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship when the sinking was imminent, the crew’s chances of survival were significantly reduced because El Faro was equipped with life rafts and open uncovered lifeboats ineffective in hurricane conditions.

The NTSB also said that the poor oversight and inadequate safety management system of the ship’s operator, TOTE, contributed to the sinking.

“Although El Faro and its crew should never have found themselves in such treacherous weather, that ship was not destined to sink,” said Sumwalt.  “If the crew had more information about the status of the hatches, how to best manage the flooding situation, and the ship’s vulnerabilities when in a sustained list, the accident might have been prevented.”

Explore more in the official accident report herebelow: