Several years ago, when browsing in the library of the Jung Center of Houston I met a gentleman who was a merchant mariner, living in Prague at the time, but who has since retired to the Houston area, near his home port of Galveston. The man, Donald GaNung, has corresponded with me since and often included stories of his travels to places like Montevideo and Bangkok. Recently, when exchanging e mails I mentioned that I had been thinking of him with the news that the American CarrierEl Farohad disappeared, and is now lost with 33 aboard. Here is Donald's response describing in vivid detail what it is like in a serious storm at sea, printed with his permission, for which we thank him.
- James Hollis, Ph.D.
The Sinking of the MV El Faro
Yes, I have looked many times at the water as I would be on deck walking daily. 40 years at sea and I know. One time I threw over a whole side of a full grown pig. I didn't want to deal with it in the shipyard and didn't need it. I was by myself and before the month we'd be there the meat would be too old. It had already been in the freezer walkin a long time even before I got there. I threw it over in the dark of the early morning hour (0400 or thereabouts). I'd gotten up earlier to do this. I watched it in the dim light hit the water and quickly sink out of sight, the light bare flesh and long length as the legs were still frozen straight out, that it looked so human. How quickly it slipped out of sight and how final the act was. I'd been aboard ships where there were men who committed suicide. The Captain usually called the Chief Steward in such instances for some reason believing us closer to the hearth of the matter in some way. But to tell the truth walking on deck at night for some time afterward was simply not comfortable, I would be thoroughly spooked. I didn't even like to stand close to big drops fearing somehow that hypnotic aspect of the drop would overtake me. I had to make that fear a friend and learn to test the rails for rust (break-throughs happened easily) and so on before I got over that sense of vertigo. Later in my life at sea it didn't bother me as I always checked the strength of the railing before depending upon it. I never challenged the sea with bravado and yet when I was younger I often worked out on a big cargo hatch cover doing karate, jumping, kicking, etc.
So when I heard the El Faro went down and I'd been on her sister ship, the MV El Morro, I knew exactly how it would feel if I were there. I called my seaman friend Andy who is here my best bud. He was telling his wife the ship probably got caught by the eye of the hurrican pulling it in closer rather than able to get away. In rolling seas of that magnitude if something in the engine room was ready to break then you have the reason for the loss of power. I've hit a rough wave 60' high outside of Rio even after a major storm at sea. The storm was nothing compared that 60' wave. How big are the waves in a #4 class hurricane; I've been in full gales and water washed over the ship so much so that even on the stern the portholes looked a Bendix Washing machine with the disturbed water washing the glass outside.
How did those men die, miserably is my guess and not even able to string themselves together or hope in the least. They knew they were goners. All modern ships have EPIRBS, these things stay afloat even if a ship goes down and emit a signal picked up by satellites telling of the location. Why didn't EPIRBS work and allow search and rescue to find the area? It wasn't the ship or the Coast Guard's fault as these are checked regularly and maintained religiously. What happened?
As I've often noted at sea, the sea rules. Nature is far bigger than our modern technology and I've seen it time and again. We have fire and boat drills weekly and they are real. But in a storm like that, the ship listing and bouncing, rocking side to side and pitching forward and aft just getting a few people into wildly swinging boats would be impossible. The lifeboats on a Puerto Rico run from Jax on such an old ship would have probably been open boats, therefore boats that would be useless in such a storm.
The men died, they died like that pig sank, officers and crew alike, Captain and deck hand. And each man would have struggled mightily or succumbed quickly in accord with his mood. And what mood would have that been considering my fears resulting in vertigo. I can only imagine the horror. Sad is too kind a word to bestow upon their demise. The uncaring whipped up seas, the brutal wind, the shear noise of it all along with the sense it was unjustified as just hours before they were safe on board, the preciousness of life, the realization there would only be minutes left, hard cruel minutes at that.
You know Jim that was a run, Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, that people would set themselves up for months ahead so as to be at the top when the job came into the Union Hall for relief, or rotary (meaning the other guy's time was up and he had to get off). Yes, they knew exactly when the time was up. People were ready, good paying jobs too, warm climate, easy run (only a few days at sea between ports - 3).
Since the courses are mostly set by the company who was it who didn't have them go around that hurricane. Or was it coming on so quickly, huge of an extended, that the best they could do was put to sea, probably the latter. And yes, even the Chief Steward died along with all the others. Each had relatives, a luck portion would have had family...none of them lucky in the end. A bitter watery death without recompense of any kind, not even a burial. It may not have been as brutal as a war time death on the field but by no means was it an easy death.
I read the latest news and my guess is pretty much correct. At least the Coast Guard is continuing the search as someone may be still there in a survival suit (one in each room, enormously effective and buoyant suits). I can only hope a few make it. The Coast Guard is keeping the search up stating we, the merchant mariners, are highly trained. That's correct. We know what to do and probably many did it. But as many maybe didn't because the ship lost power and everything gets so pounded at that point that it's hard to walk from a desk to a bunk let alone put on a survival suit and waddle to the railing (the ship was listing 15 degrees on the last communication but without power they would soon be overpowered by the seas and possibly listing more. We would practice and anticipate walking up and down narrow stairways in oversize survival suits and down the passageways (very long in such circumstances) to get to a door going outside, hopefully not already submerged OR then up another level, back and forth to the stairwells midships. You can see also no one can just jump overboard and no one will until the Captain says to. Did the communication system break down somewhere along the way, probably did. It would have been a mess then for never is it at sea every man for himself. We have loud signals to abandon ship but did they work in those conditions. I can only imagine the confusion, complete darkness inside a big house without power. It's just a horror. We go through dark houses in our training having to find our way out using the buddy system in those instances. Did that happen in this or were people isolated mostly from the fact of having to go to the cabins to get into the survival suit. And delays, each would disobey and dig out his money and passport; so you see, they were blind.
It's a chilling story, imagine trying to get to a door not submerged, uphill using the railing as your pull (only one side of the passage has a railing) with a thick foam-like covering your hands leaving only three fingers and thickly insulated thumb. The bottom of the survival suit has oversize extensions for the feet (one size fits most). The railing has not sufficient space between itself and the bulkhead (wall) for the insulated hand unless firmly pressed between. Each grip, and step carefully managed as the ship is being turned and tossed still while the seaman is panicked about leaving, concerned about his family, and no doubt just plain scared of what is to immediately follow. The boat deck, if he reached it would have been a mess of tangled cables by then and the boat itself likely topsy-turvy. If he managed in this clumsy suit to find a way into the boat in the process of launching it with the waves and wind beating on the hull from various directions and the ship swinging widely in response these gravity davits would have a difficult time finding a clear space in the water to drop and more likely would be crashing and smashing up the lifeboat against the davits themselves or the ship as the cable was played out. Now if the seaman survives this he must get out from this swinging wreckage held together by a pieces and parts in the cable and fiberglass boat construction. Escaping this he must find the courage to just jump before the ship goes under. And if he waits too long, took too long, or just was scared out of his mind the ship will pull him under as it goes down relieving him of his responsibility to kill himself by jumping overboard.
Parts of him may be found in some state of decomposition once he floats back up to the surface (if he ever got free of that mess around him or even out on deck at all).
I watched the news wondering about the “satellite pings” as the news put it. Only one news representative questioned the US Coast Guard as to what happened concerning this. In return I heard they knew of no pings and “everything” was being investigated about this tragic loss. That’s government-speak for they too didn’t know what happened. All systems failed. The rescue planes had panels turn off upon their return from the 100+ mph winds. They couldn’t get any lower than 100’ but that sounds like a one-time try for at that low level they really were in too much danger themselves. As many times I noted in my forty years at sea, Nature rules.