JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Why did the El Faro sail into the eye of a Category 4 hurricane?
That’s the question Eddie Pittman and Pavis Whitley still have on their minds.
The answer may be that the ship had no other choice due to the actions of the captain and the inaction of the ship’s owner.
Pittman, who has worked on the El Faro and other cargo ships for most of his life, believes the blame lies with TOTE Maritime, which owns the ship.
“If you’re gonna tell me that you agreed with (ship captain Mike Davidson) and you see his point of going there and coming back, how are you not responsible,” he said. “It could have all been solved with one sentence. Do not go anywhere near Hurricane Joaquin.”
The 790-foot ship went missing off the Bahamas in Oct. 2015 after it lost power and took on water in rough seas fueled by Joaquin.
Four of the 33 sailors aboard the ship were from Southwest Florida: Howard Schoenly, Jeremy Riehm, Steven Shultz and Keith Griffin.
One body in a survival suit, large amounts of debris and some wreckage from the ship have been found.
No survivors were found.
Images of the sunken ship show a breach in the El Faro’s hull and its main navigation tower missing, according to the Associated Press.
It is believed the ship, which was traveling from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico with cars and other cargo, sank in in 15,000 feet of water during the hurricane.
Multiple lawsuits were filed against TOTE Maritime by relatives of the sailors, claiming the company was negligent in letting the ship sail into hazardous weather. Ten of those families received settlements for $500,000 each that cover “pre-death pain and suffering” and economic losses from the deaths.
TOTE Maritime has filed a suit claiming limited liability over the incident and that the ship was properly equipped for its voyage.
Court proceedings are not new for the company. Since 2008, six executives from three shipping companies, including three from TOTE’s parent company, have been sentenced to federal prison for colluding to keep shipping prices high to make more money. The company was also fined $14.7 million by the U.S. Department of Justice for the practice.
The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the El Faro’s ill-fated journey. The Coast Guard will hold a hearing next week focusing on the events leading up to the ship’s sinking.
Whitley, who also spent most of his life on cargo ships, and Pittman believe Davidson did not take it upon himself to sail into a hurricane.
“Anytime they tell you don’t do this or don’t do that, they put it in writing and send it down to whoever your supervisor is and you have to sign it,” Pittman said. “So why won’t you tell me that if you told him not to go, just where’s the paper? Why haven’t they produced an email? A piece of paper saying, ‘we told him not to do this?'”
The ship was traveling along the eastern side of the Bahamas, but they could’ve gone around the hurricane, said Liz Kagan, a Fort Myers attorney representing the family of one of the crew members.
“There was opportunity for him to go west,” she said. “For him to duck into some of the coves there in the Bahamas or get behind one of the islands.”
As the El Faro approached the hurricane, another ship owned by TOTE Maritime was told to go around it, Pittman and Whitley said.
“This one goes 150 to 200 miles outta the way to avoid the storm, while the El Faro’s going into the storm,” Pittman said. “Same company.”
Making a point?
It was that same company that did not make Davidson captain of one of their two newest ships, according to former crew members and family members of the El Faro sailors.
“I imagine most people would take that very hard,” Kagan said. “So that leads one to the assumption that maybe he was trying to prove himself again to them. That he was capable of captaining the new ship. Capable of sticking with their schedule. Capable of getting it down there even though he had to go near a hurricane or perhaps through a hurricane.”
Pittman and Whitley believe the El Faro crew tried to convenience Davidson to take another route or to turn back the ship.
“I guarantee you they did,” Pittman said. “I know quite a few of ’em who have. You’ve gotta think that even if you did that and caused a mutiny and you turn around, the company’s still gonna take the captain’s word more than they take the 33 people.”
The ship was well known for its maintenance issues, but Whitley believes that would not have mattered.
“I think the most well maintained ship wouldn’t have held up in conditions like that,” he said.
Lifeboats, even if they were modernized, may also not matter much in 150 mph winds and 50 foot high seas, said both men, who only imagined what the crew was thinking in their final moments.
“The horror that these guys were facing…and probably knowing that this is the end,” Whitley said.
Pittman believes the ship was in complete chaos.
“They’re probably thinking about, you know, that they’ll never get to see their families,” he said. “Their sons, daughters, wives. Some of these guys were getting ready to have babies again, you know. Young fathers, you know, and they’ll never get to see their child and their child got to grow up without their fathers.”
TOTE Maritime did not respond to interview requests for this story.