MIAMI — The captain of the missing container ship El Faro is capable and experienced, a friend says, and likely believed he had a good plan to avoid Hurricane Joaquin in the Atlantic when he and 32 other crew members departed Florida for Puerto Rico last week.
“My guess is that he saw that he could outrun the storm, providing everything went right,” Larry Legere, of Maine, said Wednesday of El Faro captain Michael Davidson.
But the ship’s main propulsion failed, the ship’s owners say, stranding the crew in the path of the storm — and the Coast Guard believes it sank.
Despite formidable odds, search crews still are scouring the ocean for the cargo ship’s survivors.
Authorities have found debris, but have not seen the ship nor any survivors since the cargo vessel lost contact near the Bahamas on Thursday — just as Hurricane Joaquin was barreling through the area.
But relatives of several of the crew members are still waiting for their loved ones to come back.
“I’ve cried so much that I … have no more tears,” Andrew Dehlinger, father of crew member Jordan Dehlinger, told CNN affiliate WMTW. “So he’s got to come — they all have to come back.”
Here’s the latest on the search and investigation.
Ship owners: Captain considered his route safe
The owners of El Faro insist the captain had a “sound plan” to avoid Hurricane Joaquin — a plan that only unraveled when the ship’s main propulsion stopped working.
The captain had real-time weather information when he left the port in Jacksonville and reported favorable conditions at the outset, Tote Services President Phil Greene told reporters.
Given the weather system, the captain’s “plan was a sound plan that would have enabled him to clearly pass around the storm with a margin of comfort that was adequate in his professional opinion,” Greene said.
But knowing that a potential hurricane was brewing, why was El Faro allowed to go ahead with its scheduled route?
Tote officials said they trust the company’s captains to be the decision-makers, and that up until El Faro lost its propulsion, the reports were not alarming.
The captain sent an email to headquarters September 30 saying he was aware of the “weather condition” — the increasingly powerful Hurricane Joaquin — and that he was monitoring its track, though conditions where the ship was “looked very favorable,” Greene said.
But the next day, El Faro lost propulsion right in the path of the hurricane, Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said.
“They were disabled right by the eye of Hurricane Joaquin,” Fedor said Tuesday.
“If they were able to abandon ship and put on their survival suits, they would have been abandoning ship into that Category 4 hurricane. So you’re talking about 140-mile-an-hour winds, 50-foot seas, zero visibility. It’s a very dire situation, a very challenging situation even for the most experienced mariner.”
What happened to the ship’s propulsion?
The captain told his company that El Faro was disabled, but “did not explain in his communication why he had lost propulsion,” Greene said. “He indicated that he had had a navigational incident.”
The captain had said the ship was listing, or leaning, 15 degrees. But it was unclear whether that was due to the wind or environmental conditions, and what impact this may have had on the propulsion system.
It was also unknown how much time lapsed between the time the propulsion failed and the time the captain reported the problem to his bosses.
“Based on evaluating the position of the ship when the captain reported (the propulsion failure), he was in the path of the storm,” Greene said.
“I think what is regrettable on this is the fact that the vessel did become disabled in the path of the storm, and that is what (ultimately) led to the tragedy.”
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Jacksonville on Tuesday.
“Our mission is to understand not just what happened, but why it happened, and to issue recommendations and findings to prevent this from happening again,” NTSB Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said.
“We will be looking at everything so we leave no stone unturned in our investigation.”
Captain’s friend: ‘He would have weighed all of the factors’
Legere told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday that he’s known Davidson since the 1970s, when Legere was a ferry captain and Davidson served as a deck hand.
Davidson worked his way up, was promoted to captain and eventually attended Maine Maritime Academy, Legere said.
“Mike was a very capable and experienced captain,” Legere said. “He would have weighed all of the factors — the weather, the condition of the ship.”
Legere said that deadlines to deliver cargo generally play into a captain’s decision to sail.
“However, I don’t believe he would have been pressured by the company, considering the weather forecast and so forth,” he said.