Who Sank El Faro? An Interview With Rachel Slade

Having solved the mystery of the largest maritime disaster in a generation, Rachel Slade can see how what happened on the ocean is an allegory for what’s happening on dry land.

Joshunda Sanders | Longreads | May 2018 | 14 minutes (3,119 words)

El Faro rolled farther into the wind, exhausted by the fight, until her deck edge dipped into the brine. Superheated Caribbean waters beckoned her in. The ship’s floors turned to the sky and became walls, her walls became ceilings. She was going gently into the eternal night of the deep ocean.

Two people remained on the bridge as she sank.

“Captain,” Frank Hamm pleaded. “Captain. Captain.”

Davidson braced himself on the high side of the bridge, looking down what was now the steep ramp of the floor. At the end of it, the heavy seaman was pinned to the corner by gravity and fear. He couldn’t climb up to the starboard side of the bridge to get out. The angle of the floor was too steep.

“Come on, Frank,” Davidson said. “We gotta move. You gotta get up. You gotta snap out of it. And we gotta get out.”

— from Into The Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and The Sinking of El Faro

Rachel Slade has never lived more than five miles from the Atlantic — she lives in Massachusetts and Maine — and her admiration for the ocean ripples through Into the Raging Sea. The poetic gaze of a boat-lover, sailor, rower and coxswain is apparent on every page.

Slade’s book is a comprehensive account of what led to the mysterious October 2015 sinking of the shipping vessel El Faro. While on an oft-charted path delivering goods from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico, El Faro sailed directly into Hurricane Joaquin. It was the deadliest American maritime event in more than three decades.

More than the story of how a ship was overcome by a storm, Into The Raging Sea is an allegory for what it means to be a part of the nation’s largely invisible working and middle class. Mariners are literally set adrift and set apart from the rest of us for many weeks and months at a time, out of view and, apparently, out of the reach of the rules and regulations that should protect them.

Through meticulous reporting, interviews with relatives and mariners — some of whom knew the crew that perished with the ship — and by drawing on transcripts from a black box digital recorder retrieved from the ocean floor nine months after the loss of El Faro, which recorded the final 26 hours on the ship’s navigation bridge, Slade reconstructed the conversations the lost mariners had in their last hours on the ship.

Slade writes with novelistic precision about the many complicated decisions that the beleaguered Captain Michael Davidson — a 53-year-old with two daughters to put through college — had to make aboard a ship built for another time. The outdated lifesaving equipment matched the equally antiquated approach he took to tracking weather updates, going against the advice of the only female mariner on board, Danielle Randolph, and a few others within his chain of command.

I knew that the Captain made obviously bad decisions, but there was a reason he made those bad decisions, and I wanted to find out what those reasons were. Nobody makes those kinds of decisions without tremendous amounts of pressure on them.

The U.S. maritime industry values profits and efficiency over safety and regulations. While climate change doesn’t figure prominently here, it is worth noting that increasingly hard to predict superstorms, combined with the U.S. government’s hostile relationship to science-related funding, mean that even as hurricanes worsen over time, American mariners have to rely on ever cheaper, more outdated meteorological tools to navigate around them.

Another hurricane season approaches, and Hurricane Maria continues to bring devastation to bear in Puerto Rico, making Into The Raging Sea a timely and urgent book. It felt eerie to read about the antiquated Jones Act and poor government decisions related to profit and aging infrastructure that converged to contribute to El Faro’s demise, all the while knowing that the deaths of more than 1,000 Americans in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria were connected to a similar abject neglect.


Joshunda Sanders: You’ve said that, when you first read about the disappearance of the ship, you were driven to find out what happened because modern American ships don’t just vanish — they have GPS, there are radar and satellite communications. When did you first learn about El Faro? Talk about going from working on the piece for Yankee Magazine in 2016 to the process of writing the book.

Rachel Slade: I’m a firm believer in fate. I’m a very cynical and skeptical person, but I think you can open yourself up to possibilities by rolling the dice. I had just left my full-time job at Boston magazine and I was looking for stories to pitch to Yankee magazine. I was constantly on Twitter. I saw this news story about El Faro families settling. So I said, “Wait a minute, there was a shipwreck?”

I started Googling around. I was dumbfounded that this had happened and that it had happened without me knowing. And I heard this voice in my head and thought, “This is mine. I have to do this.” I quickly wrote up a pitch to Yankee and even when I wrote it up, I thought, “How am I going to do this?” I’m not an ambulance chaser. Even after the Boston marathon, I was really uncomfortable talking to survivors. I don’t like invading people’s emotions like that.

I think it was instinctual that it had to be a complicated story. It’s just strange. Ships just don’t disappear.

It’s an industry that has always interested me because it’s always been that thing that I wanted to know more about, but also just knowing that this particular story was complicated, knowing that it would be rich. I just had that feeling.

When the editor said yes, I panicked. Because like I said, it was hard for me. For a couple of months, I couldn’t reach out to survivors. I admire the people who are able to just do it. For me, it was very hard. It just came down to me saying to myself, “Rachel, are you going to do this or not? You just have to.”

We were talking about fate. The first mother to respond to me and say yes was Michael Holland’s mother, Deb Roberts. She graciously allowed me to come up to her house in a remote part in Maine. That broke everything open. She was so generous with her time and her thoughts and everything else. After that conversation, I started to get it.

As a journalist, I want to understand the facts, but I also want to tell the story through the people impacted. Some people I talked to were wary, but they also put their trust in me and that meant everything. I suddenly had an amazing responsibility to carry that through. So, I wrote the Yankee piece, but it was too short. I didn’t have the space to do the proper job, I thought.

Shortly after I wrote it, the black box transcripts came out. I spent the whole day with two mariners reading them that day. We had no idea what was in them, and they were long. We were all reacting to the same material, and they knew the people who were speaking. So they could give me all kinds of insights about people on the ship.

The working title was, How Many Bad Decisions Do You Have To Make To Sink a Ship? The answer is thousands.

Talk about your experience telling this story as a woman — most of the histories and narratives from the mariner industry are heavily male.

Women don’t typically write in this space. I’m one of those people who’s drawn to those kinds of spaces. I don’t know if it’s because they’re predominantly male. Before this, I was an architect and I worked in construction. I like people who solve problems that you can see.

Approaching this story as an outsider, I knew it could cut one of two ways. You know how when you sit on a train, and they have a friendly face, you just dump? I’ve done it, I feel bad for those strangers! But the other way it could break was the wariness of outsiders, especially the media. A lot of people, the maritime especially, were wary of me being anti-mariner or anti-maritime.

They’re superstitious, as a group, like baseball players. They don’t want to speak ill of the dead. We’re talking about people who died and people who knew them. It was really hard with some of my sources to be frank. They could be frank with each other. Trust was a really big issue from the start.

I think being a woman actually helped me because they saw me as a compassionate listener. And many of them were suffering from the trauma of knowing people who had died, or knowing the ship, or knowing this was a tragedy that had happened. [The sinking of El Faro] was huge in the industry, all over the world. People in the industry were talking about it nonstop for a year.

I think people were ultimately grateful that there was a compassionate listener. Lots of times in your life you don’t get many compassionate listeners. Most people don’t have time to listen to your story. So here I was, an outsider saying, “I’m here, I’m not going away. I want to hear it, and I’m going to stay until you tell me.” I think it allowed them to have the opportunity for catharsis. One of my most important sources told me that. He told me, “Send me your bill.”

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Did you encounter resistance as a woman? If so, how did you navigate it?

There was a lot of mansplaining going on. But that wasn’t entirely bad. You think you know everything, and every now and then, someone would drop a nugget in my lap.

It’s a very niche world. I definitely had to come up to speed very fast. It’s just funny even now, now that I know a lot about it, when I talk to people about El Faro, they’ll ask me if I know what the Jones Act is, and I’ll say, “You should really read my book.”

But now, a lot of the mariners will say it’s like talking to another mariner. I would say ultimately I didn’t receive any resistance because I was a woman. I think it increased my outsider status, because people felt more comfortable opening up.

They were all men. They were so earnest. They have the engineering mind. They’re problem solvers.

They wanted the story told and they wanted to make sure the story was told correctly. They wanted to make sure that the people responsible were held responsible and they knew that the conclusions of the investigations would pin the responsibility on the Captain. If you read the hot takes or the shorter stories, that’s kind of the narrative that they tell. And I wanted to get that much more complex story because I knew that the Captain made obviously bad decisions, but there was a reason he made those bad decisions, and I wanted to find out what those reasons were. Nobody makes those kinds of decisions without tremendous amounts of pressure on them. I felt like this was an allegory for our middle class.

Did unraveling the mystery satisfy you?

Yes. I feel like I know what happened as well as anybody alive could. I feel like I was able to tell a very complicated story. That’s an important story that I really hope people read because like I said, I think of it as an allegory for our time.

It seems like the message — or one message — of your book is that another catastrophe like El Faro is possible.

It had been thirty some years since something like this happened. I think there was complacency involved. This woke up a lot of people. For that reason, I think some of the mistakes that were made will not be repeated.

I do think that one technicality that I hope people start to address is bridge resource management. That’s about learning how to communicate in a strongly hierarchical situation. You have a chain of command. You also need to develop a way so that people can communicate, so that people can be heard — so that no matter where you are in that hierarchy, if there are mistakes or concerns, you have a seat at the table.

That was one of many things that was discussed in the findings in the report. I honestly think it’s the most important part of my book. It goes for every industry. This was a life or death situation and maybe you don’t have that in, say, publishing. But we need to be better communicators.

And management is something we don’t teach well. In commercial airlines, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) mentioned this in the 1970s as a critical factor in an accident. Those incredible pilots who went out in the jayhawks for search and rescue in the storm? They listened to each other.

We all make mistakes, and when the stakes are really high, we need to make sure that there’s a way to communicate, so that there’s a way to bring up concerns that have dire consequences. I’m particularly sensitive to this as a woman because we’re marginalized. And obviously Danielle was a victim of that — and the ship was a victim of that, so she wasn’t the only one.

I think the best thing that we can do at this point is ask ourselves what we want government to be.

There is some visceral, hard imagery in the book, but some softer, spiritual elements, too. There’s a chapter titled “Spirits.” Why are both of those present?

Not everyone would do that and I thought my editor would flag that but she never did. I think that this universe is wild and wonderful place and it has many secrets. And we don’t know as much as we think we do. And Pastor Robert Green, who lost his stepson LaShawn, made a very passionate speech about that. And I wanted his voice in the book. I wanted that perspective in the book, it was very important to me.

I didn’t want this to just be from the white officers’ perspective. I wanted people to understand the depth of grief but also the different ways we deal with grief. You can find him on the web, on his Facebook page. He was talking to me on the phone and he let it fly. His opening salvo was, “This was not an accident.”

I thought he meant he was going to start pointing fingers, but he came at it from a spiritual point of view “God allowed it” and I thought it was really rich and I needed that in there. And when other people dropped stories in my lap, I realized that I could put his words in there and they would fit among other voices.

Do you agree with the outcome of the NTSB investigation? Do you think what happened is mainly Captain Davidson’s fault or is the answer more complicated?

It’s a massively complicated story; that’s why I wrote the book. Certainly Captain Davidson was culpable. The working title was, How Many Bad Decisions Do You Have To Make To Sink a Ship? The answer is thousands. The history of the ship is the history of our maritime culture. It’s a long chain of events. Nothing here was an accident.

Captain Davidson is a symbol of the middle class.

Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a secret what we do to the people who do the work.

I was ready to dislike him. He’s a survivalist. He doesn’t listen to the people around him. He’s testing his mettle. How were you able to write him with nuance?

He’s a man in a tough position and he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m not defending him. But I know that this is not what he intended to do. He was trying to [redeem] himself. You can really see that in that final dialogue between him and Frank Hamm. That he’s stuck there and he tried to coax Frank Hamm out.

That was the man. That was the man inside him. That was the moment that we got to see who Michael Davidson really was. When you think about that, it makes you weep. No one would ever want to be in his position, knowing that he put all these people in danger.

I think that we learned who Michael Davidson was. In that way, it was very Shakespearean. The whole time you think you understand this person and then there’s this moment of clarity when you see the human and that’s where the play ends. It’s just crazy that this is real life.

Are there things that everyday people, Americans, can be doing to ease the burden on some of the heroes that you call out in the book? The men and women who still work in shipping? To the extent that your book is an allegory for the middle class, what do your readers do?

It’s important to remember what government is capable of. Government can be a very powerful tool for good. It can also be a very powerful tool for evil. In this book, I focus on the potential for government to be good. I see it here most effectively as regulating industry.

There’s no question that we need to regulate industry. It does need oversight. It just does. Because the drive for profit is so powerful that you need some kind of alternative voice protecting the people who do the work.

That’s why I’m very pro-union. All systems can be abused, but people need to have a voice to protect themselves and their livelihoods. I’m an old school liberal.

I think the best thing that we can do at this point is ask ourselves what we want government to be. It can be very, very good. And an important voice at the table. It can shape us as much as we shape it. I think we need to ask ourselves what we want government to be. It’s an important question and I don’t think we ask it enough.

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Joshunda Sanders is an author working on her first novel. She lives and works in the Bronx, NY.

Editor: Dana Snitzky