Maritime Casualty News, October 2015

NTSB issues preliminary report on El Faro

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a preliminary report on the disappearance of the containership El Faro, which went missing on Oct. 1 east of the Bahamas with 33 people on board.

The 790-foot U.S.-flagged ship was two days into a voyage from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when the Coast Guard received distress signals at about 0715 on Oct. 1. The captain reported the vessel lost propulsion, was taking on water and listing 15 degrees. At the time, the ship owned by TOTE Maritime was just 20 miles from the eye of Hurricane Joaquin.

Search efforts began Oct. 2, and over the next few days officials found a damaged lifeboat, two damaged life rafts and a dead crewmember wearing a survival suit, the NTSB said. Various ship debris and an oil slick were spotted. The search for survivors ended on Oct. 7.

Authorities have begun searching for the vessel’s remains, which is believed to have sunk in waters 15,000 feet deep.

“The U.S. Navy Salvage and Diving division of the Naval Seas Systems Command was contracted to locate the sunken ship, assist in the sea floor documentation of the wreckage, and recover the voyage data recorder,” the NTSB preliminary report said.

The report did not contain any details on the potential cause of the accident. The NTSB and the Coast Guard are investigating the cause of the sinking.

Coast Guard vessel strikes, kills undocumented immigrant

A U.S. Coast Guard vessel struck a Mexican national trying to swim across the Brownsville Ship Channel in April, the agency said following a six-month investigation. The woman, an undocumented immigrant, died from her injuries.

Coast Guard Investigators determined the woman was unintentionally hit by the Coast Guard small boat during its patrols on April 23. The vessel was a 33-foot Special Purpose Craft and its crew was from South Padre Island.

“The report further states that the undocumented migrant and a human smuggler were attempting to cross the commercial shipping channel undetected at night when she was struck,” the Coast Guard said in an Oct. 7 press release.  

In a statement, Sector Corpus Christi Commander Capt. Tony Hahn expressed condolences to the victim’s family. He said the agency was “extremely saddened” by the tragedy.

Tug, barge sink in Houston Ship Channel

A small tugboat and barge sank at their moorings in the upper Houston Ship Channel, delaying transit for some deep-draft vessels.

The 25-foot harbor tug Annie Moon was connected to a 200-foot barge carrying sheet metal strips when both sank at about 0500 on Oct. 19. Another vessel reported hearing lines parting as the two vessels sank, the Coast Guard said in a press release.

Authorities closed a section of the upper ship channel at about 0600, and another section was reduced to one-way traffic into the afternoon. A heavy-lift cargo crane was hired to perform salvage operations.

“The assessment team determined that approximately 20 gallons of diesel fuel leaked from the tug, which was carrying about 300 gallons,” the Coast Guard said in a news release. “The area has been boomed off to contain and recover any additional spill while the vessels are being recovered.”

The cause of the accident is still under investigation.

Casualty flashback: October 1980

SS Poet left Philadelphia early on Oct. 24, 1980, bound for Egypt with a load of corn. The ship sailed past Cape Henlopen, Del., into stormy waters in the mid-Atlantic, where it vanished without a trace. Thirty-four mariners died in the accident.

There were no confirmed communications from the 523-foot ship after Oct. 24, although an unidentified distress signal was recorded around midnight on Oct. 26. The ship’s owners, Hawaiian Eugenia Corp., didn’t report it missing until Nov. 3.

“During the next five days, the Coast Guard conducted extensive communication checks with negative results,” the Coast Guard investigation report said. “An air and surface search was commenced on 8 November and the ensuing search, which covered 296,000 square miles during a 10-day period, proved unsuccessful and was suspended on 17 November.”

Poet was built in 1944 as a wartime troop carrier, and in 1965 it was converted into a cargo ship, the report said.

Around the time Poet left Philadelphia, a major storm was making its way up the East Coast. Forecasts called for up to 50-knot winds and seas reaching 22 feet. A weather analysis showed conditions on the ship’s path were likely worst starting in the morning on Oct. 25 and ending a day later.

With no wreckage to examine, investigators explored a wide range of possible causes, including shifting cargo, hull failure, explosions and onboard fires, and flooding in one or more cargo holds. They considered the possibility that the ship capsized in rough seas and performed simulations and analyses to test various scenarios.

According to the report, the vessel most likely capsized after encountering following or quartering seas sometime between Oct. 25 and 26. Capsizing or foundering due to flooding in the No. 1 cargo hold was deemed next most likely.

“In terms of severity, the sudden capsizing of the Poet due to a loss of transverse stability in following or quartering seas could result in no distress message being sent or received, no survivors reaching lifeboats or life rafts and in fact no lifeboats or life rafts surviving the capsizing,” the report said.

Investigators acknowledge there are limitations to the simulations and lack of clarity about conditions the vessel actually encountered. The wreckage of Poet has never been found, and the report makes clear that exact details about the accident remain unknown. 

By Professional Mariner Staff