A Book Review by Michael Carr
After EL FARO’s sinking in October 2015, a Coast Guard Board of Inquiry was initiated to find the cause of this tragedy. I attended several of the lengthy Coast Guard hearings, which worked to gather facts and at some point optimistically, illuminate or expose, failures which led to El Faro’s sinking.
However, testimony from naval architects, engineers, meteorologists, seasoned mariners, managers from TOTE (EL FARO’s operator), and a plethora of other “experts” only left me more confused and quizzical. Little of the testimony made sense in explaining this tragedy.
At one of the many Coast Guard hearings I sat near Rachel Slade, who I soon learned was writing a book on EL FARO’s final voyage. We began talking, and Rachel asked me, as well as others, our thoughts, observations, and insight into this case.
I sensed early on that Rachel might be the one who could find real answers. A reader might say at this point, “Wait, we know why EL FARO sank…the ship sailed into Hurricane Joaquin because her Captain had old weather forecasts, the forecasts were inaccurate, EL FARO’s old and tired boilers failed, and the ship was overcome by the huge seas and winds produced by Joaquin’s Category 3 force”.
Yes, those are the dry facts on what occurred, but the real question, the unanswered question, until now, is how could El Faro’s seasoned and experienced Captain and crew, be seduced, deceived, and betrayed by a few late weather reports? This was far too simple an explanation.
Rachel Slade dug in. She realized there was more than we were seeing & hearing. What is the real story? We all waited for the Coast Guard Accident Report to be published. I thought for sure the Coast Guard would uncover the “Ah hah!” fact or facts that would reveal what had gone wrong, and led to EL FARO’s tragic sinking. When the report was published I read all 282 pages, with a highlighter and pen in hand. But no answers, just what we already knew: big hurricane, old weather reports, engine failure, flooding, sinking, 33 mariners drowned. I was left with why?
Then Rachel Slade sent me a copy of her book Into the Raging Sea. And now I know why EL FARO sank. El Faro’s tragic story lies along a circuitous track, involving many individuals, organizations, and human frailties. Actions, events, decisions, and human behavior, as disparate & seemingly unrelated or relevant as speeding tickets, the Jones Act, Maritime Unions, greed, hubris, arrogance, and naiveté all play a role and contribute, finally, to explaining how El Faro sailed directly into Hurricane Joaquin and sank.
I remember the first Coast Guard hearing on El Faro’s sinking. Admiral Greene, Tote’s Vice-President, was called as the first witness. I was sitting just a few feet behind Admiral Greene, in the spectator rows. I watched Admiral Greene intently, listening to his every word, and remember his testimony as being detached, disinterested in details, and his off-handed attitude.
But what really stuck with me about Admiral Greene was that he crossed his legs under the witness table, and his legs bounced & fidgeted constantly during his nearly 45 minutes of testimony. I thought to myself “For an Admiral, he is far too nervous and uncomfortable, why?” This and many other aspects of the forthcoming yearlong Coast Guard investigation caused me pause.
Something was missing here.
And now, finally, we know the answer. Thanks to Rachel Slade’s journalistic persistence, and her ability to get at the truth about the people involved with El Faro. People, each of us, make endless choices and decisions, and each choice and decision portend consequences. Sometimes these consequences are inconsequential, and other times they are momentous. They can cause ships to sink.
Into the Raging Sea is a riveting sea story of disaster and death. And many readers will likely leave it at that, but Into the Raging Sea is so much more. It resonates to the struggles and challenges faced by mariners making a living on the sea, and the impact our society has on people when it makes cold and detached decisions and laws based solely on economics and “return on investment”.
Rachel Slade’s impressive work here has finally resolved that queasy feeling in my stomach, and nagging in the back of my brain. Now I know why El Faro sank. Rachel’s work reminds me of the message in Lawrence Hall’s short story “The Ledge”, “…..we wake each morning with promises to keep but “…there are things beyond the power of any man”.
Thirty-three mariners drowned at sea when El Faro sank. Thirty-three. We need to read Rachel Slade’s book, and understand its meaning, beyond being a tale of the sea.
Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro by Rachel Slade is available for preorder today via Amazon.