In 1976, Gordon Lightfoot wrote and recorded the hauntingly beautiful song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Storm winds and flooding waters had led to the sinking of the ship, a freighter loaded with iron ore on Lake Superior. As the lyrics of Lightfoot’s chart-topping hit tell us, “the church bell chimed till it rang 29 times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
40 years after that tragedy, a fully loaded freighter, also with the initials EF, and a crew of 33, was pummeled by the winds and waters of Category Four Hurricane Joaquin. El Faro, making a familiar run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, fell to a watery grave off the coast of Bahama Island.
Penning the dirge this time is first-time author Rachel Slade who has written a book titled, “Into the Raging Sea, Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro.” Beautifully written, it is equally haunting.
Measures were taken after the wreck of the Fitzgerald, but what Slade uncovers is poor management and a woeful disregard for safety. Ship owners for TOTE Marine might as well have had as its motto - Rule One, Get to Port on Time. Rule Two, When Making Decisions, See Rule One.
Unlike the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, technology allows us to have the transcripts of the crew’s conversations. Slade weaves them in and out, as well as her exhaustive research, into a full account of the disaster that took all 33 souls on board.
The sinking of El Faro was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history. The captain certainly felt all the pressures of getting the cargo to port and was dealing with a rust bucket. Nevertheless, he did not cover himself in glory.
But neither did TOTE Maritime, the company that owned the 40-year-old freighter. El Faro, built the year the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk, was a death trap.
If you read this book, be prepared to have a sore neck from shaking your head in disgust. As just one example of Tote treating their crews like so much cargo, El Faro had open-top lifeboats like those on the Titanic.
Legal to have them? Yes.
Foolish to not replace them with modern types? Sadly, yes.
Balancing the awful feelings one gets as we learn of the neglect by TOTE and the seemingly suicidal actions by the Captain, are the members of the Coast Guard Rescue team stationed in Clearwater.
In particular are the heroic actions of Petty Officer 1st Class Ben Cournia. Having lost its propulsion, El Faro was floundering near the core of the hurricane’s winds and could not be reached by helicopters. Instead, the four man crew turned their attention to the Minouche, a 212 foot cargo ship in trouble off the coast of Haiti.
That story has been lost in the telling of El Faro, but Cournia and his mates will never forget it. After rescuing four of the ships’s crew of twelve, Cournia had to wait in the cauldron of waters as the Apache refueled. When the helicopter came back, he rescued the remaining eight.
Also uplifting is the bravery of the C-130 crew, who fought off sudden downdrafts near the eye of Joaquin, by then a Category Four hurricane.
A sharp salute also goes to US Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer, who chaired the panel that investigated the accident and had to deal with vague answers from Tote’s top executives and bullying tactics of their high paid lawyers.
Equally worthy of praise are the Norfolk-based crews of the Navy ships and underwater vehicles that found the wreckage of the ship 15,000 feet below, and those who operated the CURV 21 vehicle that found and retrieved the VDR black box.
The author also covers the story of some of the crew, including Danielle Laura Randolph, described by Maritime Marine Academy as “tough as nails,” and “ a seaworthy mariner and loved by anyone who had the privilege of spending more than five minutes with her.”
We also feel the pain of the family members. Maritime mourners are haunted by not being able to say their final goodbyes in the same way others do.
My only negative comment about this book is that there are no images. Photos of the main players would have helped the mind’s eye to follow along, as well as a color photograph of the ship. The book is worth the $27.95 price tag, but including images seems appropriate for that price. According to wiki, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald “led to changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspection of vessels.”
In the wake of this tragedy, one can hope that the key players in the shipping industry will act accordingly.
After all, the last thing we need is another tragic accident and the sad song or poignant book that follows.