On Thursday morning, Laurie Bobillot received what she prayed were not her daughter’s final words.
“Not sure if you’ve been following the weather at all,” wrote her daughter, Danielle Randolph, from aboard the American container ship El Faro, “but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it.”
“Out here” meant en route from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico. In other words, the middle of the Bermuda Triangle.
“Winds are super bad and seas are not great,” wrote Randolph, ominously.
Bobillot was following the weather, of course. Most Americans were worried that Hurricane Joaquin might rain out football games or cancel backyard barbecues.
But for Bobillot, Joaquin was much more serious. She watched as the hurricane churned its way through the Caribbean, barreling toward El Faro — and her daughter — with wind speeds up to 140 miles per hour. All the while, Bobillot waited for her daughter to call from safety.
She is still waiting.
Four days after Randolph’s last message, she and her 32 fellow crew members remain missing at sea. Just hours after she sent her e-mail, El Faro began to take on water and tilt to one side, according to the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime. Then the ship’s communications suddenly went quiet.
It hasn’t been heard from since.
For four days, the U.S. Coast Guard has been searching for El Faro. Flying through the hurricane to look for the ship, Coast Guard planes have scoured more than 70,000 square nautical miles for the 790-foot vessel. They have spotted life rings, debris and an oil slick near El Faro’s last known location — but no signs of the ship, or of survivors.
Now families are fearing the worst, while also trying to maintain hope for a miracle.
“We’ve have been going with no sleep for four days,” Laurie Bobillot told The Washington Post on Sunday night from Jacksonville, Fla., where she and other family members of the crew have gathered.
“This is torture,” echoed Mary Shevory, whose daughter, Mariette Wright, was on El Faro. “I’m just praying to God they find the ship and bring my daughter and everyone on it home,” she told the Associated Press.
The maritime mystery bears a striking similarity to another incident more than 30 years ago. In 1983, a 39-year-old cargo ship called the SS Marine Electric sank off the coast of Virginia. Of its 34-member crew, only three survived after spending an hour and a half in the frigid Atlantic. The sinking of the Marine Electric spurred safety reforms in the shipping industry.
Now the hope is that those reforms, including better lifeboats, help El Faro’s crew avoid a similar fate.
So far, however, the signs are not good.
El Faro is 40 years old, even older than the Marine Electric when it went down. Although its age alone doesn’t make it unsafe (the ship was overhauled in 2006), it doesn’t help.
“It’s got all the problems of an aging ship,” said Vincent Brannigan, a professor emeritus of law and technology at the University of Maryland, according to the Bangor Daily News. “1975, that’s a long time ago for this type of ship.”
Then there are the items found at sea. The first one was an orange life ring, spotted Saturday about 120 miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas. According to the AP, authorities have confirmed that the life ring came from El Faro. On Sunday, Coast Guard planes spotted debris and an oil sheen in the same area. And TOTE Maritime said one of its search ships had found a container that appeared to be from El Faro.
But “there has been no sighting of the El Faro or any life boats,” company president Tim Nolan said, according to the AP.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Michael E. Miller