One Year Later, Families Memorialize El Faro's Loss

El Faro memorial at SIU hall, Jacksonville (courtesy Mike Stein / facebook)

Published Oct 4, 2016 10:39 AM by The Maritime Executive

On October 1, families of the 33 crewmembers who perished aboard the lost ro/ro El Faro gathered in Jacksonville, Florida to commemorate the first anniversary of the vessel's sinking. 

The families marked the occasion with a ceremony in front of a new lighthouse-shaped memorial commissioned in the crew's memory. The statue sits in front of the Seafarer's International Union (SIU) hall in Jacksonville, and SIU paid for its construction: 17 of the 33 men aboard were union members. SIU also held a parallel ceremony at its training academy in Piney Point, Maryland. 

Separately, Jacksonville's city council has renamed a local waterfront park as the El Faro Memorial at Dames Point. City officials and representatives from TOTE Maritime, the vessel's operator, unveiled another lighthouse memorial statue at the park in a private ceremony on Saturday. ("Lighthouse" is the English translation of "El Faro.")

“The ceremony culminated in the Reading of the Names with a bell's toll and moment of silence,” said a pastor from Seamen’s Church. He said that the memorial includes “the names of all the seafarers, and a beam which points southeast toward Puerto Rico. Eventually, a similar lighthouse will be installed in Puerto Rico, with its beam pointed toward Jacksonville.”

The El Faro families are commemorating the anniversary in many other ways, public and private. Mike Holland's mother and brother now have tattoes matching his, they told a local CBS affiliate. Frank Hamm's wife Rochelle Hamm is petitioning Congress for more government oversight of vessel traffic – measures like putting the ultimate decision on routing in the hands of a marine "air traffic control."

Meanwhile, litigation over the vessel's sinking continues. Last week, District Judge Harvey Schlesinger of Jacksonville's federal court rejected a plaintiffs' motion to render pre-trial judgement on the El Faro's seaworthiness. He ruled that the vessel has not been proven unseaworthy and that the vessel's operator has not completed its factfinding. 

TOTE maintains that the El Faro was fully seaworthy and that she went down due to the unforeseen severity of Hurricane Joaquin.  

23 of 33 families have already settled with TOTE for an offered package of $500,000 plus economic damages. The remaining plaintiffs must wait until 2018 for a hearing on whether TOTE's liability will be limited to $15 million under maritime law; after that, they can proceed with separate claims for damages.

The National Transportation Safety Board, working with the Navy, has recovered the El Faro's voyage data recorder and is in the process of analyzing its contents. A panel of experts is about halfway through preparing a full transcript of the recorder's bridge audio for use in the investigation. 

Once the audio transcript is ready, the U.S. Coast Guard will schedule a third and final round of Marine Board of Investigation hearings.

The board chairman, Captain Jason Neubauer, told Jacksonville.com that the panel will probably be held in January. Right now, he said that investigators are looking at a combination of multiple factors leading up to the disaster – "human factors," the "vessel's overall compliance through time," "liquid loads" and stability. His team is working on modeling the ship's condition and its likely performance in rough weather. 

Testimony at a hearing in May revealed that the ship's captain may have had outdated weather data and that the El Faro’s boilers were scheduled for maintenance.

“[The recorder is] just one component of a very complex investigation. There is still a great deal of work to be done in order to understand how the many factors converged that led to the sinking and the tragic loss of 33 lives,” said NTSB chairman Christopher A. Hart in August.

The recorder’s contents may also be restricted to the investigation. Federal law limits access to the VDR audio to personnel involved in the NTSB’s process, and families are not sure that they will get an opportunity to hear it. The VDR itself will be returned to TOTE after the investigation and it will be up to the company whether to share any of its contents with the families, the NTSB says.