It’s “highly unlikely” El Faro would have survived in the weather conditions she faced, even if just one hold had flooded.
It's the finding from the Coast Guard Marine Safety Center, who- at the request of the Marine Board of Investigation- put together a "Stability and Structures Preliminary Report" investigating potential contributors to the sinking.
FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking
Dr. Jeff Stettler, a Naval Architect with the MSC who is also a technical advisor for the MBI, led the research efforts, and outlined his findings during the first day of the final hearing session. He found that, while El Faro was operating within the intact and damage stability standards required for her age on her final voyage, she was doing so without a lot of flexibility to address a stability problem at sea.
Stettler says the ship was operating with limited ballast capacity, and had some other factors that impacted their flexibility. He also confirmed what we've previously learned through these hearing sessions, which is that some of the other tanks were occasionally left slack- a factor that wasn't computed with the ship's cargo software and could have impacted stability.
Through the Captain's final shoreside communication, we had previously learned that El Faro had taken on water in the 3 hold. The Captain believed this was because of a blown scuttle. The transcript from the Voyage Data Recorder showed that the crew later reported a bilge alarm going off in the 2A hold.
“By this point, it had been reported that the vessel was heeling to an angle of approximately fifteen degrees, and it was likely that water would have been entering at least intermittently through the cargo hold ventilation system in to hold 2A,” Stettler says.
Stettler believes that the flooding in 3 hold- added to the wind and sea conditions the ship was facing in Hurricane Joaquin- led the ship to position in a way that allowed for water to get in through cargo hold ventilation openings and in to hold 2A, and potentially further in to two and one. The report says the ship would have started to capsize, or turn over, although that may have actually been slowed as cargo fell off the deck, because that would have added stability. The continued flooding ultimately led to the ship returning to upright, and sinking, according to Stettler.
“It would be highly unlikely the El Faro could have survived even a single compartment flooding of hold three given the sea conditions with estimated 70-90 knot winds and 25-30 foot seas,” Stettler says.
As part of his report, Stettler also concluded that El Faro would not have met intact and damage stability standards required of ships of more modern construction. Because of El Faro’s age, there were several things allowed on board that weren’t for more modern ships- for example, El Faro was allowed to have open lifeboats, whereas newer ships must have enclosed ones.
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