Why the SS El Faro Capsized

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Illustration by Todd Detwiler

Like so many tragedies, no one thing led to the sinking of the SS El Faro. Aside from basic human hubris, here are five of the biggest factors experts believe contributed to the disaster.

1. A Failed Engined

El Faro’s engine burned oil to generate steam, which drove the turbine that turned the propeller. When the old boilers couldn’t produce enough heat, the propeller’s RPMs fell off, and the ship slowed. Winds pummeled its left (port) side, and it began to lean right (starboard). When it hit a critical 15-degree list, lubricating oil ran to its right side and the engine stopped. Without power to move forward, it filled with water and capsized.

2. A Shifting Storm

Six major prediction models, including the National Hurricane Center’s official forecast, all misjudged Joaquin. “We didn’t forecast it to get as strong as it did,” says James Franklin, chief of forecast operations with the NHC, noting that Joaquin was the most powerful October storm to hit the Bahamas in 150 years. Because Joaquin was able to hold together better than predicted, the storm moved in an unexpected direction.

3. Outdated Lifeboats

El Faro carried two open-air lifeboats. “Today, a vessel like that would be required to have totally enclosed, motor-driven lifeboats,” marine safety consultant Robert Markle told investigators. Such vessels, which can be launched from the inside so that no one is left behind, can turn right-side-up if they capsize. “If they had enclosed lifeboats,” says former El Faro seaman Kurt Bruer, “they would have been able to survive.”

4. A Dying Industry

Antiquated ships are not unusual in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Once the world leader, the U.S. fleet has been in decline since World War II and survives only because of a law called the Jones Act, which restricts shipping between U.S. ports to American flagged ships and crews. The industry limps on within this protected safe zone. The reason? Money. American mariners are expensive. It costs millions of dollars a year more to operate a ship under a U.S. flag than with foreign crews. Were it not for the money the U.S. shipbuilding industry makes, the government might scrap the Jones Act altogether and let U.S. shipping die off.

5. A Corroded Boat

Built in 1975, El Faro was some four times older than the average container ship at sea. One sister ship, El Morro, had recently been scrapped because its aging steel hull was so corroded. El Faro’s other sister ship, El Yunque, was taken out of service in 2016 because of extensive corrosion.

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