The Coast Guard released a damning report Sunday on the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 that holds the captain most responsible for the tragedy that killed all 33 aboard.
Capt. Michael Davidson misread both the storm’s strength and his ship’s ability to get through it, according to the report released on the second anniversary of the ship’s loss.
The report says Davidson should have changed the El Faro’s route between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to avoid Joaquin’s 150 mph winds and should have done more to save the 790-foot ship.
Davidson “was ultimately responsible for the vessel, the crew and its safe navigation,” said Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer, who chaired the investigation.
He said Davidson “misjudged the path of Hurricane Joaquin and overestimated the vessel’s heavy weather survivability while also failing to take adequate precautions to monitor and prepare for heavy weather.”
“During critical periods of navigation … he failed to understand the severity of the situation, even when the watch standards warned him the hurricane was intensifying.” Neubauer said.
Neubauer said the Coast Guard would have sought to revoke Davidson’s license if he had survived. He had been a captain for 10 years.
Davidson, 53, was recorded telling a crew member a few hours before the sinking, “There’s nothing bad about this ride. I was sleepin’ like a baby. This is every day in Alaska,” where he had previously worked.
The report also says the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime Inc., had not replaced a safety officer, spreading out those duties among other managers, and had violated regulations regarding crew rest periods and working hours. The Coast Guard said it will seek civil actions against TOTE but no criminal penalties as there was no criminal intent.
TOTE Maritime released a statement Sunday saying the report “is another piece of this sacred obligation that everyone who works upon the sea must study and embrace. The report details industry practices which need change.”
The El Faro went down on Oct. 1, 2015, in 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas.
Voice recordings recovered from the ship show an increasingly panicked and stressed crew fighting to save the ship after it lost propulsion as they battled wind, shifting cargo and waves.
Davidson ordered the ship abandoned shortly before it sank but its open air lifeboats likely would have provided insufficient protection, the Coast Guard said. The agency said it would recommend that all ships now be equipped with modern enclosed lifeboats.
The report also includes other recommendations.
“The most important thing to remember is that 33 people lost their lives in this tragedy,” Neubauer said, according to the Florida Times-Union. “If adopted, we believe the safety recommendations in our report will improve safety of life at sea.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.