The wrecks are so familiar: The Titanic. The Edmund Fitzgerald. Even the Andrea Gail of “The Perfect Storm.” But such maritime tragedies are extraordinarily rare.
In fact, when the container ship El Faro sank near the Bahamas in 2015, a casualty of Hurricane Joaquin, it had been 35 years since American shipping suffered such a disaster, with all souls lost. With advances in communications, forecasting and shipbuilding, this simply wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.
But there’s always the human factor.
With “Into the Raging Sea,” Boston journalist Rachel Slade has assembled a damning book in which no one shoulders much of the blame. Market forces have created a shipping industry bent on wringing every penny out of a voyage, leading to an aging fleet, postponed repairs, budget cuts, understaffed crews and stressed captains.
In the case of El Faro, its owner, a conglomerate called TOTE, had a chain of command so obtuse — and, according to Slade’s reporting, deliberately so — that responsibility was a shell game offering the company plausible deniability that anything ever went amiss.
Add in climate change, in which the increasingly warming ocean provided unprecedented fuel, causing a minor storm to morph into an immensely powerful and erratic hurricane. Worse, lags in delivering forecasts made crucial information useless by the time it arrived.
The book recounts the final 24 hours on the El Faro. It’s a chilling account because all the conversation on the bridge is drawn from the transcript of the audio made once the ship’s “black box” was recovered — in itself an immense challenge.
There are other new books about the El Faro’s sinking — “Into the Storm” by Tristram Korten and “Run the Storm” by George Michelsen Foy. Both use the transcript, and both recount the final hours and profile the crew and rescuers involved. But Slade’s book devotes the most time to the Coast Guard inquiry, and this sets “Into the Raging Sea” apart.
Slade describes how the shipping industry labors to remain profitable, but she makes no bones about how safety gets compromised. As testimony reveals, too few people were doing too many tasks. The upshot is that ships weren’t loaded well, basic safety procedures weren’t followed, and “good enough” became a best-case scenario.
Capt. Michael Davidson, aggrieved from being passed over for promotions, believed an on-time delivery under adverse conditions would help his career, which drove his risky decisions. Tellingly, he never referred to Joaquin as a hurricane, only as “the low.”
But Slade’s account of the Coast Guard inquiry contains her most damning passages. TOTE’s executives testify with an oily arrogance, continually stating that they hire only the best captains, who make the best decisions, thus they allow them to do their work without burdensome scrutiny from the company.
The strategy enabled them to avoid much blame, dinged mostly for poor ship maintenance. Only with the transcribed ship’s audio did it become clear that TOTE cut corners. Worse, its corporate structure enabled each department to deflect blame. Yes, the El Faro’s captain did not make the best decisions. But instead of that being in any way TOTE’s responsibility, the final conclusion was that the captain screwed up.
Thirty-three people lost their lives. A huge ship lies at the bottom of the Atlantic. It had been 35 years since such a loss.
The inescapable message here is that the next tragedy won’t be so long in coming.
Kim Ode was a longtime features writer for the Star Tribune. On Twitter @Odewrites
Into the Raging Sea
By: Rachel Slade.
Publisher: Ecco, 391 pages, $27.99.