Maritime Casualty News, November 2015

NTSB abandons search for El Faro’s VDR

Federal authorities have abandoned the search for El Faro’s voyage data recorder after an extensive underwater search found no trace of the device.

The U.S. Navy used sonar to locate the ship near its last known location close to the Crooked Islands in the Bahamas, and a remotely operated vehicle confirmed it was El Faro. The 790-foot ship sank Oct. 1 in 15,000 feet of water after losing propulsion and encountering Hurricane Joaquin.

El Faro’s bridge separated from the ship, and the searchers were unable to locate the section where the VDR was located amid debris on the seafloor, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

“On Nov. 11, the navigation bridge was found but neither the mast nor the VDR was found in the vicinity of the navigation bridge structure. After five more days of searching with CURV-21, it was determined that the VDR could not be located,” the NTSB said. “The search and video documentation efforts of El Faro were completed on Nov. 15. No further search missions are planned.”

In a statement, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said the agency has completed many investigations over the years without use of the VDR. He said investigators could still determine what led to the sinking.

“While it is disappointing that the voyage data recorder was not located, we are hopeful that we’ll be able to determine the probable cause of this tragedy and the factors that may have contributed to it,” he said.

El Faro was en route from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when it lost propulsion as Hurricane Joaquin approached. There were 33 people on board when the ship sank and all are presumed dead.

Safety alert warns of dryer fire hazards

Dryer fires are a common enough threat at home, particularly in machines with heavy lint buildup. According to the Coast Guard, dryer fires also pose a serious risk at sea.

The agency issued a safety alert on Nov. 9 urging crew to be vigilant when using onboard laundry machines. The agency urges proper use of these machines’ fire suppression systems.

The Coast Guard issued the alert following a small dryer fire aboard a cruise ship, the cause of which has not been determined. The blaze was extinguished quickly and caused only minor damage, but investigators determined the dryer’s built-in fire suppression system had been disabled. Although the laundry room was regularly inspected, the laundry machines were not, the alert said. It was not clear who was responsible for maintaining the ship’s laundry equipment.

“Although the impact of this incident was relatively small, if not for the response of the vessel's crewmembers and firefighters, the outcome could have been much worse,” the alert said.

The Coast Guard urged operators to consider potential risks associated with this equipment and to properly maintain safety equipment with laundry machines. It recommends clearly establishing responsibility for maintaining equipment and its safety features.

Signage that describes best practices and warns of safety risks also should be placed near laundry machines in multiple languages, the alert said.

To read the full alert, visit

‘Picked up pickup’ incident focus of safety alert

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a safety alert warning longshoremen, terminal operators and port officials of potential risks when handling heavy ship mooring lines.

The alert issued Nov. 10 was spurred by a March 2015 incident in Baltimore involving the vessel MSC Ilona. There, a pickup truck became caught on a mooring line and was hauled off the pier with a worker inside it. The worker jumped out but was nearly run over by the pickup.

A similar incident years ago killed a worker, the Coast Guard said, adding that it’s not clear how often such incidents occur.  

It’s common for line-handlers to use trucks, forklifts, golf carts and other machinery when handling mooring lines, the Coast Guard said. Insufficient personnel and the extremely heavy lines often “lead to unconventional line-handling practices.”

The Coast Guard recommended port stakeholders develop policies and procedures to avoid risks during line-handling. The alert suggested use of quick-release devices or weak link arrangements to minimize danger and said line-handlers should be able to communicate with the ship during mooring and unmooring.

Historical casualty: November 1898

The steamship Portland was sailing from Boston to Portland, Maine, on Nov. 26, 1898, when it encountered a historic late-fall snowstorm with hurricane-force winds. The vessel never reached Portland, and all passengers and crew perished in the sinking.

The location of the accident remained a mystery until 1989, when the shipwreck was spotted off Cape Ann in about 450 feet of water.

Portland was a paddle-wheeled steamship built at Bath Iron Works and designed for passenger service between the two New England cities. The 281-foot ship launched in 1889.

The vessel left Boston on the night of Nov. 26 and sailed into an uncharacteristically strong storm that brought hurricane-force winds and rough sea. The storm, later named “The Portland Gale,” was responsible for 400 casualties and damaged some 150 vessels.

In the days after the accident, dozens of bodies and parts of the ship washed onto shores around Cape Ann. It was never confirmed how many people were on board the ship because the list of passengers and crew sank with the ship. Estimates range from 190 to about 245 people.

The tragedy led to a major change in U.S. shipping. After the Portland sinking, ships began leaving copies of their passenger manifest on shore before departure, according to a 2006 report published by the National Archives. 

By Professional Mariner Staff