Salvaged Recording Tells Story of Horrible Maritime Disaster

Recording tells the story of the doomed El Faro, the cargo ship that was caught in a hurricane.

el faro
Students, faculty and alumni attend a vigil at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Press Herald via Getty Images

On October 1, 2015, an American merchant captain named Michael Davidson had to sail a 790-foot U.S.-flagged cargo ship, El Faro, into the eye wall of a Category 3 hurricane.

El Faro, which means “the lighthouse” in Spanish, sunk during the hurricane. Davidson and the 32 others aboard the ship are presumed to have drowned. The attempt was a surprise since Davidson, who left behind a wife and two college-aged daughters, was known for being a stickler for safety.

The sinking of El Faro was the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades, and in an in-depth profile from Vanity Fair based on the final recordings from the doomed vessel, readers get a chilling account of the final voyage.

The first sign of trouble came when Captain Davidson called shore to say “a scuttle popped open on two-deck” and that they had taken on a good deal of water. He left a message with former captain John Lawrence, who was listed on the ship as the official point of contact, or “designated person ashore” around 7 a.m.

When he finally reached Lawrence directly, Davidson explained they had sailed into the hurricane. Lawrence said he would inform the coast guard and Davidson told Lawrence, “We’re in survival mode now.” Those were the last words heard from El Faro. One minute after the phone call ended, El Faro sent out a distress alert by satellite and then the ship sent the Coast Guard a security alert message that contained the ship’s coordinates and drift speed and direction. At 7:38 a.m., about 30 min after Davidson first left a message trying to speak to Lawrence, a Coast Guard petty officer called Lawrence for the ship’s contact information. But the El Faro had already sunk and the crew beyond reach of rescue in an impenetrable storm.

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