El Faro audio transcripts capture haunting final moments

Transcripts of audio from the bridge of the sunken cargo ship El Faro were released on Tuesday, revealing a growing sense of concern among crew members during the vessel’s final hours.

Although the actual audio cannot be released to the public by federal law, the printed words are still powerful and, at times, heart rending.

El Faro sank off the Bahamas on October 1, 2015 when it was caught in Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew were lost, making it the worst loss of life for a US-flagged cargo vessel in more than three decades.

These transcripts came from the vessel’s Voyage Data Recorder (VDR), which was recovered from the ocean floor in early August. They were released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The 510 pages of transcripts show that on two occasions during the fateful night crew members – first the third mate (after 11pm) and then the second mate (at 2:47am) – called captain Michael Davidson, who was resting, and asked if he wanted to change course because weather reports were worsening. Both times the mates relayed to other crew members that the captain decided to stay on course.

Earlier at 10.40pm, some nine hours before the sinking, third mate Jeremy Riehm on watch, said: “Guess I’m just turning into a Chicken Little, but I have a feeling like something bad is gonna happen.”

After midnight, second mate Danielle Randolph says: “Every time we come further south the storm keeps trying to follow us …. All the other ships high-tailed it away.”

Then, when news comes that Joaquin had turned into a major Category 3 storm, she says: “Oh my God”.

At 4:09am with the ship being battered by big waves Davidson returns to the bridge.

About 30 minutes later first mate Steven Shultz relays that the engineer has called because the ship is tilting and the oil levels are problematic.

At 5:03am Davidson tells Shultz: “We’re getting conflicting reports as to where the centre of the storm is”.

At 5.43am one of the cargo holds begins flooding and Davidson sends Shultz to pump it out.

Half an hour later the ship loses propulsive power and Davidson calls ship owners Tote to report the situation with the hold continuing to flood.

At 7:24am Davidson says: “We’re not in good shape right now.” Five minutes later the abandon ship alarm sounds.

Davidson orders everyone to get off the ship which leads to the most poignant part of the transcript as an unidentified crewman says: “Help me, help me.”

Davidson says: “Don’t panic. Work your way up here.”

The crewman declares: “I’m a goner”, to which Davidson replies: “No you’re not.”

Soon after, at 7.39am, only yelling is heard, the transcript says. Then the recording ends.

El Faro’s crew comprised 28 US citizens and permanent residents and five Polish nationals.

The 790-foot El Faro was transporting a cargo of cars from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan Puerto Rico.

There were 26 hours of audio, of which around 10 hours were deemed relevant to the investigation and transcribed.

The NTSB has been analyzing the audio and other data on the VDR, but has yet to come to a conclusion on the causes of the disaster.


Donal Scully

With 28 years experience writing and editing for newspapers in the UK and Hong Kong, Donal is now based in California from where he covers the Americas for Splash as well as ensuring the site is loaded through the Western Hemisphere timezone.


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