The Sinking of the El Faro
Our Maritime Firm Represented Grieving Widows of El Faro Crew Members
SS El Faro was a combination roll-on/roll-off and lift-on/lift-off cargo ship that was owned by TOTE Maritime. On September 29, 2015, the vessel left Jacksonville, Florida en route for San Juan Puerto while helmed by a crew of 33 people. By October 1, 2015, all contact was lost with the 40-year-old ship after it had sailed directly in Hurricane Joaquin. All crew members aboard the vessel were presumed dead and, a month later, the El Faro’s wreckage was located on the sea floor. Family members turned to our offshore accident lawyers for the justice they deserved.
The El Faro disaster triggered one of the most comprehensive investigations in U.S. maritime history.
The Events Leading to the El Faro’s Sinking
September 29, 2015: The Course
When the El Faro left port, it was carrying 391 shipping containers and about 294 trailers and cars. Off the coast, Hurricane Joaquin was still a tropical storm. According to TOTE Maritime, El Faro’s captain accounted for the storm’s presence and charted a course that kept the vessel as safe distance. Yet, the route took the ship within 200 miles of the storm. Notably, forecasts from the National Weather Service predicted that the tropical storm would become a hurricane by the first day of October. In other words, El Faro’s captain and its owner directed the vessel dangerously close to a weather system that was predicted to become increasingly volatile with each moment.
September 30, 2015: Joaquin Gathers Strength
Just as predicted, Joaquin quickly started gathering strength and growing into a hurricane on September 30. By the end of that day, the storm reached the intensity of a Category 3 hurricane. Despite heading directly toward the storm, the El Faro continued its course. Investigators would later determine that the crew of the El Faro expressed concern to their captain about Hurricane Joaquin’s growing strength and the proximity of the vessel to the storm. They brought up the aging ship’s inability to withstand the forces exerted by a storm as strong as the one they were approaching. Yet, the vessel continued its path toward the eyewall of the hurricane.
A hurricane’s eyewall is where the most severe conditions of the storm exist. It’s the location of strong winds and powerful downpours. If a ship is sailing near a hurricane, the eyewall is the worst possible part for it to be near.
October 1, 2015: Tragedy Strikes
By the morning of October 1, it was obvious on the deck of the El Faro that serious mistakes were made by the captain and owner of El Faro. Around 5 a.m., the captain made a phone call confirming that the cargo ship had begun to take on water. By 7 a.m., the captain was alerting TOTE that the crew was experiencing a maritime emergency. About 30 minutes later, the crew received orders to abandon the El Faro.
Experts estimate that the El Faro and her crew battled winds of 92 mph and waves between 20 and 30 feet. Bodies of crew members were never recovered, and it would take two years for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to complete its investigation into the incident.
What Investigators Determined About the El Faro Tragedy
Search crews recovered the El Faro’s voyage data recorder (VDR) nearly a year after the vessel was lost. The device provided important audio recording and other data that provided important clues for what happened in the moments leading up to the El Faro’s demise. Details that emerged from the VDR’s data was as frustrating as it was tragic and shocking. A year later, the NTSB released what was its most extensive investigation to date.
The NTSB determined the following:
- The captain ignored data and made the wrong decisions while navigating the vessel.
- The El Faro’s lifeboats weren’t adequate for survival.
- TOTE Maritime failed to maintain the vessel and its deteriorating condition contributed to its inability to withstand Hurricane Joaquin.
In summary, the investigation revealed severe missteps by El Faro’s captain and exposed TOTE’s mismanagement. While the ship shouldn’t have been sailed into the storm, its condition was a significant factor that sealed the fate of all 33 people on board. The storm battered the ship, causing it to lose power, take on water, and sink.
The NTSB’s investigation didn’t just reveal that the tragedy was preventable—it identified several blatant acts of negligence leading up to it. NTSB officials revealed that the El Faro’s crew never should have been anywhere close to the raging storm, and that the cargo ship wasn't in the condition to handle any type of severe weather. Every step to save the El Faro was skipped, forcing the crew and their families to unfairly pay the steepest price for the negligence.
Fighting for Justice After the El Faro Sinking
After the El Faro sank, families of the 33 killed crew members didn’t know what to do. Several widows of workers lost during the tragedy approached our offshore lawyers for help. Just a few years before the El Faro tragedy, our team represented a third of the crew suffering from the Deepwater Horizon disaster—the most of any law firm. We secured the best results for our clients, making us the right firm for these grieving widows to turn to for help.
TOTE Maritime didn’t make securing justice for these widows simple.
Instead of taking responsibility for what happened, the company invoked an outdated law known as the Limitation of Liability Act of 1850. In short, this law was initially designed to protect vessel owners from accidents they had no control over. During the 19th century, owners couldn’t communicate with their ship, disease was rampant, vessels couldn’t withstand storms, and crews were constantly at risk of attacks from pirates. The Limitation of Liability Act does exactly what its name implies—it limits how much liability vessel owners can face after accidents.
In this case, the company was attempting to hide behind a law to escape accountability for an accident it should have prevented. Nothing about the El Faro’s fate was unpredictable. Not only had the company betrayed the safety of its workers, it was cruelly attempting to use a century-and-a-half old law to get away with doing so.
Despite TOTE's limitation act, our team went on to secure life-changing results for the widows who needed them. We refused to let this tactic prevent our clients from getting fair results.
While nothing could change what happened, we refused to let the company that caused the suffering our clients to get away with it while facing no consequences. No matter what.
After Major Maritime Disasters, Our Offshore Injury Lawyers Demand Justice
The El Faro case proved an important fact: offshore companies—no matter how hard they try—can’t escape accountability for preventable accidents. When the other side fought, we pushed back. When an outdated and cruel law was deployed to hinder justice, we refused to stop fighting for the results that our clients needed.
Unfortunately, offshore accidents will continue to be a problem for as long as the companies continue to place profits over safety. Years after the El Faro, Arnold & Itkin was trusted by crew members of the Deepwater Asgard after it was left in the path of a hurricane. Just months after that disaster, 19 crew members were killed when the Seacor Power, a lift boat, was sailed into weather that it wasn't designed to withstand. Time and time again, companies don't protect workers—we're the firm that demands accountability from them.
The El Faro disaster triggered one of the most challenging investigations the NTSB has ever conducted. It was also one of the most complicated cases we have ever handled. We fought for our clients because that’s exactly what they were to us—and justice is the only acceptable outcome for the people we care about and work for.
Call today for help from a team that knows how to get answers after major maritime accidents. A consultation is free when you call (888) 493-1629 now.