There was nothing left to do.

The crew of the cargo ship El Faro had prepared for Hurricane Joaquin, but the storm was unpredictable and stronger than expected. The vessel was listing significantly. Water was coming in faster than it could be pumped out. The ship’s power plant had failed and engineers couldn’t get in back online. Visibility was nonexistent.

At 7:29 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2015, Capt. Michael Davidson was forced to make the call.

“All right, let’s go ahead and ring it – ring the abandon ship,” the captain said, according to a transcript of the ship’s final 26 hours released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Ten minutes after Davidson’s order, as crew members were still scrambling to put on immersion suits and jettison into life rafts, the audio aboard the ship cut out.

All 33 people on board died. Five had ties to Maine, including Davidson, who was from Windham.


The 510-page transcript of audio captured from the ship’s bridge provides a remarkably detailed account of the adverse weather conditions the ship faced as it sailed from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico – directly into the path of what would become a Category 4 hurricane.

Although some questions remain – and might never be answered – the document offers a vivid and tragic picture of one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent history.

1123063_63495 ElFaroDisasterMap1216.jpg

The following account is derived from that transcript.


The crew members of the El Faro were well aware that they would be approaching Hurricane Joaquin when the sun rose on Sept. 30.

Look at that red sky over there,” Davidson said at 6:41 a.m. that morning. “Red in the morning, sailors take warning.”


Speaking to his chief mate, Steven Shultz, of Cape Coral, Florida, the captain warned that things would get worse.

“So we’ll just have to tough this one out,” he said, adding, “The ship can handle it.”

By 8:30 a.m., Davidson made a slight adjustment to the ship’s course, to ensure it would pass below the storm.

“We’ll be about 60 miles south of the eye,” he said. “It should be fine. We are gonna be fine – not should be – we are gonna be fine.”

The captain and his top deck officers – the chief mate and the second and third mates, Danielle Randolph, of Rockland, and Jeremie Riehm, of Camden, Delaware – seemed to embrace the impending rough weather.

They talked about how sailing through a hurricane would be good practice for when the El Faro was switched to a different route – between Tacoma, Washington, and Alaska.


The El Faro's port side cabin deck, photographed on the third recovery mission.

The El Faro’s port side cabin deck, photographed on the third recovery mission. Photos courtesy National Transportation Safety Board

But Davidson, while confident in the ship’s capabilities, was bothered by the storm’s unpredictability.

“Dude, I’ll tell you it was just festering – ya know – just, those are the worst kind because they’re not committed,” he said.

By midafternoon on Sept. 30, crew members were monitoring the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque, which was heading back to Jacksonville from San Juan.

“They are trying to get away from the storm, too,” Randolph told one of the crew members, who replied, “Nobody in their right mind would be drivin’ into it.”

“We are,” Randolph replied, followed by a sarcastic “Yaaay.”



Shortly after 4 p.m., as the El Faro met increasing swells, Davidson was asked about altering the route.

“No, no, no. We’re not gonna turn around,” he said.

Randolph, the third-ranking person on the deck side, seemed to have concerns.

“Looks like this storm’s coming right for us,” she said. “Ahh, you gotta be kidding me.”

“Gotta be a better way to go,” another crew member said.

‘Guess I’m just turnin’ into a chicken little but – I have a feeling like something bad is gonna happen.’

— Jeremie Riehm, third mate

Shultz at one point talked about “The Perfect Storm,” the Sebastian Junger novel about the fishing vessel Andrea Gail that sank off Sable Island in 1991 during an unnamed hurricane, killing all six crew members. The book was later turned into a movie.


“I saw that, but I don’t like watching that,” said another crew member.

Later in the evening, Riehm remarked that another captain might have looked at the weather reports and adjusted the route.

“That’s what I thought we – we were gonna do,” an unnamed crew member said.

Davidson trusted his route. And the crew trusted Davidson.

“I’m not gonna second-guess somebody,” Riehm said. “The guy’s been through a lot worse than this.”

Still, the third mate was growing fearful. At about 10:40 p.m., Riehm told another crew member on the bridge, “Guess I’m just turnin’ into a chicken little but – I have a feeling like something bad is gonna happen.”


Less than a half hour later, Riehm woke up Davidson, who had retired to his cabin.


Riehm had new weather information and thought the captain should see it. Unless the El Faro changed its path, it would be headed almost directly into the hurricane’s center.

Davidson, though, said he thought the ship would pass to the south and that was still the best route. He went back to sleep.

Riehm still had reservations about the weather data.

“What’s concerning me is that the umm – is that – the information we’re getting from other sources is so much different from this,” he said.


By 1 a.m. on Oct. 1, Randolph had relieved Riehm on the bridge. She, too, worried about the path.

The corner of the deck where the El Faro's navigation bridge detached is shown in an underwater photo.

The corner of the deck where the El Faro’s navigation bridge detached is shown in an underwater photo.

“I might call the captain here shortly if he doesn’t come up,” she said, adding later, “I don’t know if he can sleep knowing all of this.”

Crew members aboard the bridge saw a news report on TV shortly after 1 a.m. that the storm was intensifying quickly.

Randolph could see that without the news report. At 1:20 a.m., she woke up Davidson.

“It isn’t looking good right now,” she told him.

Davidson, though, told Randolph not to change course.


So Randolph steered the ship toward the storm. At one point, she talked to a crew member about survival suits.

“I think today would be a good day for, for, for the fire and boat drill – just be like – so we just wanna make sure everyone’s survival suit fits.”

Just before 2 a.m., a crew member told Randolph that the ship could withstand a lot. “Damn sure don’t wanna lose the plant (the ship’s engine).”

“Definitely not,” Randolph said.

At 2:47 a.m., someone said to the second mate, “Figured the captain would be up here.”

Randolph agreed, “I thought so too. I’m surprised.”


“He’ll play hero tomorrow,” the crew member said of Davidson.


By 3 a.m., things were getting rough. There were loud bumps and bangs audible throughout the bridge. Crew members commented on giant waves and swells.

Randolph again had concerns.

“This ship can’t handle this hurricane – sure as hell won’t be able to handle Alaska,” she said.

Things continued to get worse and Randolph called Davidson once more. He told her he was “sleepin’ like a baby” and that the crew shouldn’t panic. “This is every day in Alaska. This is what it’s like,” Davidson said.


Soon, the captain was up for good and conditions were deteriorating rapidly. At about 5 a.m., he warned that low visibility was the crew’s “biggest enemy.”

The El Faro's video data recorder on the sea floor. The image was taken during the third recovery mission.

The El Faro’s video data recorder on the sea floor. The image was taken during the third recovery mission.

The ship had started to list, or tip, by then. Water was coming in. Down in the engine room, there was a strong smell of diesel.

At 6:12 a.m., Davidson said, “I’m not liking this list.”

A minute later, he said, “I think we just lost the plant.”


The communication was choppy for the next several minutes. Just after 6:30 a.m., Davidson said, “They’re gonna get that boiler back up online any min- any second.”


But the engineers couldn’t fix it. The ship’s list was too severe. Too much water was getting in.

A half-hour later, Davidson concluded that “we are in dire straits right now. OK, I’m gonna call the office and tell ’em.”

Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon ship.

Davidson first called the emergency line for TOTE Maritime, the ship’s owner. He left a message indicating that he had a marine emergency. When he connected with an operator a few minutes later, his tone was urgent.

“I have a marine emergency and I would like to speak with a Q-I,” the captain said. “We had a hull breach – a scuttle blew open during a storm. We have water down in three hold; we have a heavy list; we’ve lost the main propulsion unit, the engineers cannot get it goin’.”

“No one’s panicking, um, everybody’s been made aware. Um, our – our safest bet is to stay with the ship during this particular time – the weather is ferocious out here. And uhh, we’re, we’re gonna stay with the ship.”



Davidson changed his mind in less than 10 minutes, sounding alarms to wake everyone up.

“We’re gonna be good,” he said. “We’re gonna make it right here.”

At that point there were vehicles bobbing around in the water in the ship’s cargo hold – cars and trucks that were supposed to be headed for Puerto Rico.

Randolph shouted over the alarms that she could see shipping containers floating away in the ocean. The El Faro was no longer secure.

Davidson, over the radio, told everyone to get their immersion suits ready and to “get a good head count,” before he made the call to abandon ship.


“Throw all your rafts into the water,” he said.

The next 10 minutes of audio – the final 10 minutes captured by the ship’s voyage data recorder – were choppy and broken up by constant alarms.

The last exchange was between Davidson and a crew member, who was not identified.

“Come on. Gotta move. Gotta move. You gotta get up. You gotta snap out of it – and we gotta get out,” Davidson said to him.

“Help me,” the man yelled back.

“Don’t panic,” Davidson said. Then, “Work your way up here.”


“I can’t,” the man said.

“Don’t freeze up. Come on,” Davidson said.

“I can’t,” he said.

“Yes you can.”

“My feet are slipping. Goin’ down.”

“You’re not goin’ down. Come on.”


“I need a ladder.”

“We don’t have a ladder.”

“You gonna leave me?”

“I’m not leavin’ you. Let’s go.”

For the final few minutes, there was chaotic yelling. It finally cut off at 7:39 a.m. when the voyage data recorder of the El Faro stopped.


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