Sailors warn… of disaster capitalism – People’s World
On September 29, 2015, the container ship El Faro, which means lighthouse, left the port of Jacksonville, Florida. It was carrying 25 million pounds of cargo, including cargo as diverse as 149 cars and fructose syrup. His destination was San Juan, Puerto Rico, but he never got there.
How does a ship, which spans more than two and a half football fields in length, sink in the 21st century? Was it just the hurricane he was trying to ride through?
The truth is that the ship was swept away by a toxic mix of elements.
But first, a little background. Over the past four decades there has been a sustained attack on seafarers and their working conditions, including health and safety. President Ronald Reagan (1980-88) knew of the radical organization behind the Mariners unions; he eliminated sailors’ hospitals that dated back to 1789.
The International Maritime Organization (UN) published the International Maritime Safety Code in 1987, but the United States has not signed it.
In 2011, the shipping company TOTE, which owned El Faro, hired a consultant to streamline its operations. Immediately heads rolled, including a whistleblower who had reported maintenance being sloppy on another vessel. Overall, crews and shore assistance have decreased. Crucially, there was no clear evaluator of ship’s officers, including the captain.
One example that had a direct impact on El Faro during its encounter with Hurricane Joaquin was the 2012 elimination of a harbor master. These were usually experienced marine officers who were ready for an emergency at sea. When the captain of El Faro belatedly called the company to seek advice from this experienced voice, there was none.
Lobbyists have done more dirty work for shipping companies. Keeping the waterlines high on the hulls seems to be a goal. Also called the Plimsoll mark, this is the line that must not be broken as this could cause buoyancy problems for the vessel. Companies want these waterlines, which are marked on the hulls, to be high so they can carry more containers. In other words, the ship would then run lower in the water.
This is a particularly important point regarding El Faro. She was a converted container ship with vents on her hull to send air into the belly of the ship. The water most definitely made its way into the ship that way during Joaquin. Should the waterline be raised or the ventilation reconfigured?
One of the company’s most egregious decisions was to refuse to outfit the aging ship with modern and expensive enclosed lifeboats. International codes dictated the change in 1986. Some of El Faro’s obsolete, open lifeboats were found after the hurricane in the ocean debris field. They were empty.
There were several subsidiaries of TOTE which was itself a subsidiary. When administrators were asked about safety during the El Faro sinking follow-up hearings, fingers were pointing in other directions. Most had business degrees and clearly stated that their job was to make money. The pointing finger would stop on the main captain and he was now under three miles of ocean.
Were these the only factors? Not by far.
What role has climate change generated by fossil fuels played? Heat is the key ingredient that gives muscle to a hurricane. Hurricane Joaquin got this extra energy from the very warm waters of the Bahamas.
At a record 86 degrees in 2015, the ocean was two degrees warmer than usual. What is the problem ? Each degree of increase in ocean temperature can increase a hurricane’s wind speed by 15 to 20 miles per hour. It was like an adrenaline rush in a growing monster.
This monster hurricane hit winds of 155 miles per hour. At wind speeds of 60 miles per hour, a person finds it difficult to put a foot where they intended to land. These winds were so strong that with 30-40 foot waves, the water is also suspended in the air, making it nearly impossible to breathe. Even if the sailors made it an open lifeboat, the chances of survival were slim at best.
The cost-cutting machinations of the shipping company TOTE and the spike in wind speeds of global warming were clear objective factors. There are also subjective factors involved on any vessel at sea, even in good weather. Trust between captain, mates and crew is a must.
Second Mate Danielle Randolph of Rockland, Maine knew very well about trust and how it can be broken. On one of her first trips with the TOTE Co., the first mate told her he wanted to see her. When his cabin door opened, he dropped the briefcase he was carrying. She got out of there quickly. The second was fired for sexual harassment.
Randolph’s skirmish with sexual harassment didn’t end there. The next one was even more intimidating. It was Captain Davidson. One day he approached her on deck and said, “I wish you were my friend.
The meaning of this advance did not escape the young second. It would be more of a challenge. Captains reign supreme over ships. They give the orders. The crew followed them, including fellow officers. Captains are still called masters. Would she have found another job one day if she called him? How could she tell him that he was following a disastrous sea route.
Captain Davidson was not a crew captain in the eyes of those carrying out his orders. He went quite often from his quarters to the bridge and back to his quarters. He isolated himself and seemed to like it.
Davidson also had a reputation for being a hothead. It would quickly fly out of the handle. None of the above endeared him to the crew.
One of two books on the sinking of El Faro, In the stormy sea (2018) Rachel Slade’s HarperCollins tells an even darker story. Davidson was an apocalyptic survivalist.
Davidson had guns ready. He equipped his wife and daughters with Glocks. There’s video of Davidson charging at a target with burning automatic weapons. When he runs out of ammo, he pulls out handguns. When he runs out of bullets again, he wields knives.
But there was another level to it all with Captain Davidson. He wasn’t just a fashionable survivalist, he was a conjurer of doom. The difference is that they like to be tested.
Was the captain testing himself and, along the same lines, showing his metal to the crew, directing El Faro dead in a hurricane? Also, was there racism? Doomers can have a whole array of enemies in mind. Some see people of color playing this role. A full third of El Faro’s crew was black.
A ship going off course to avoid a storm would take more fuel and time. The mantra of shipowners is like any company. Time is money, in
In this case, profits would be lost. The captain was known to seek an assignment with a newer vessel. Was he also trying to show loyalty to ownership by not redirecting and costing the company additional expenses?
You can hear real testimonies at the meeting of the National Transportation Board investigating the sinking of El Faro.
On October 7, 2015, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of twenty-eight of our brothers and sisters aboard the freighter El Faro. These brave men and women have left an incredible mark on their communities, both on land and at sea, through their hard work and unwavering commitment to maritime commerce.
Was Captain Davidson the sole reason for El Faro’s disappearance, as business leaders continually pointed out during the investigation? Probably not. Obviously, he made the decision to continue mostly on the road in the face of an increasing threat to the ship and the crew.
The sinking of El Faro was a microcosm of corporate society. It was run like an autocracy, with heavy doses of male supremacy and a cult of the bottom line.
Profits were sacrosanct. Mix in climate change, shipping lobbyists, budget cuts, deregulation, a dangerous leader with a penchant for catastrophizing, and what do you get? Disaster.
The September 24, 2022 memorial rally in Rockland, Maine paid a moving tribute to the sailors who were the essential workers who regularly brought useful goods to the island of Puerto Rico. The heroism of this multiracial, multinational, male/female workforce of El Faro was in their daily work.