It is said that the struggle to improve on safety at sea “progresses from sinking to sinking”. It is likely that last week’s tragic loss of the El Faro and all 33 souls aboard will, as usual, provide lessons — learned the hardest way possible. Few or none of these lessons are likely to be new.
The plain truth is that no one can yet answer the critical question: how did it happen? Unlike the case of Malaysian Airlines’ Flight 370, which seemingly vanished last year, we do have some grasp of the course of events. What’s missing is knowledge of the decisional process that drove the tragic sequence of events. All will have the opportunity to mull over whatever information is brought forward at the forthcoming inquiry, which will largely be conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.
It is important to point out that in the US, unlike the United Kingdom, government procedures mandate a relatively prompt start to the public hearings that may give us some answers.
It is now recalled that more than 30 years ago, there were two sinkings, with heavy loss of life, of US flag merchant vessels — the Marine Electric and Poet. Both losses spurred changes in the way that condition surveys and equipment certification by class societies and the Coast Guard were undertaken. The El Faro outcomes may be comparable.
As the El Faro investigation process, followed by hearings, gets under way, attention is likely to be drawn to possible causes of the ship’s loss of power, after it left Jacksonville. It is also probable that documentation and testimony bearing on the condition and type of the ship’s boilers and general power system, before and at the time she sailed from Jacksonville, will be given attention.
One mystery that needs to be cleared up is why El Faro took the particular course she did, after leaving the Florida coast en route to Puerto Rico; there were, after all, a number of course options available to the ship’s officers, once it became known that Joaquin was gathering in force. This is where an analysis of the course decisions that were made, by whom they were made, and their timing, will be instructive. There are a lot of “ifs”, just as there were several possible ways of evading a tropical hurricane whose location and likely course were known.
A grim United States reality of accidents of this kind, where there has been loss of life, is the impact of the Death on the High Seas Act and other seafarers’ ordinances. To put it indelicately, the process of what lawyers call ‘discovery’ will proceed alongside the formal investigative process. The litigative interests of family members, cargo owners and others with a stake the process will not be delayed.
Inevitably, there will be those who point fingers at classification and Coast Guard inspection and permitting processes and issues, particularly for the ship’s power system. There will be live witnesses to testify on these and other things, and experts of all kinds, and diverse reliability, to offer their views. The usual rumours and speculative theories are blossoming, as they always do in tragedies of this kind. Facts will eventually come out, and much if not all of the truth will be known.
There are, as a Florida lawyer put it this week, lots of folks with a dog in this fight.
They will be heard from. That being said, one final sad statement should be offered: if El Faro had gone done in Philippine waters, or anywhere else like that, would the loss of 33 lives have attracted much notice? Just asking….