One terrible night in 2015, two giant ships sailed into a hurricane—a new breed of superstorm that, thanks to climate change, had defied all expectations and would soon cause the deadliest American maritime disaster in decades. The only hope for those aboard? A young Coast Guard helicopter squad racing into the tempest, determined to save whomever they could find.
The plane was cold and the engines were loud inside the cabin. Ben Cournia slipped in foam earplugs to drown out the noise. Tendrils of light were just starting to lace the morning clouds as the C-130 Hercules, gleaming white with the U.S. Coast Guard’s telltale orange bands near the cockpit and tail, climbed above Air Station Clearwater into the sky above Florida, heading south, then east.
The heavy-browed Minnesotan glanced around the cabin, where guys were settling in for the three-hour flight to what had to be one of the loneliest outposts of the Coast Guard: a glorified sandbar otherwise known as Great Inagua Island, Bahamas. Their home for the last couple of weeks of September 2015.
Cournia, 36 and married ten years, palmed his phone and looked at the last text from his wife: “Be safe,” she wrote.
Ha, no problem, he thought. Two weeks of tropical boredom. As a member of a four-man helicopter flight team, he always envied the rest of the crew on these deployments. The pilots would get to fly their beloved Jayhawks on patrol over the Caribbean. The flight mechanics tinkered with whatever it was they tinkered with. But a rescue swimmer like Cournia? He’d be lucky if he got his feet wet. He’d settle for hitting the weights, getting some running in. At night he’d grill steaks and maybe bake cookies as consolation.
A few seats over, Dave McCarthy, a 36-year-old helicopter pilot, pressed “play” on a country-music mix—Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith—and leaned his head back. This would be his first deployment to Great Inagua. His co-pilot, 28-year-old Rick Post, also a lieutenant, sat nearby. He tended to like these postings. They were like two-week camping trips that—despite the wildly different terrain—reminded him of growing up outdoors in Nebraska. Likewise, the fourth member of the Jayhawk crew, Joshua Andrews. A flight mechanic days away from his 32nd birthday, with jug ears and a wide smile, Andrews knew there wasn’t much to do with his downtime except go snorkeling and get in some fishing. Which sounded pretty good to him.
Below them, the Florida Straits opened wide. One big cerulean highway thick with the traffic of freighters, towering cruise ships, rusty fishing trawlers, smugglers of drugs and humans, all ferrying their goods back and forth. All expecting smooth, profitable journeys.
It was late September, the tail end of that ominous June-to-November hurricane season during which those who live and work in the tropics and subtropics exist in a state of magical thinking, lulled into a sense of safety by previous years’ inactivity. But the waters of the world’s oceans are warming, and the dangers are growing. The prime conditions for stronger, stranger storms are becoming more common. On this particular day, as the giant C-130 began its descent, the clear waters of the Bahamas were around 86 degrees, about 2 degrees warmer than usual. It was a small variation that ten days later would have a big impact.
The plane banked hard over the landing strip, scaring off the wild donkeys that stray onto the tarmac. On the ground, the heat enveloped the men like a warm bath as soon as they stepped off the aircraft. As they marched toward the hooches—their four bunk dorms—they passed a newly constructed hangar and a plaque commemorating the old one, destroyed in 2008 by Hurricane Ike.
It had taken five years to rebuild this little outpost. But the Coast Guard was determined. A tiny island of about 900 people, Great Inagua sits along the Windward Passage—the strait between Cuba and Haiti—a location that makes it the ideal spot from which to run anti-narcotic-smuggling patrols. That it also puts the Coasties on a well-paved route for hurricanes is a coincidence for which they prepared. The hangar’s doors, 28 feet high and over a foot thick, were fashioned from cast concrete; the building could withstand hurricane winds of 180 miles per hour. On an island where nothing much seemed to happen, the Coast Guard nevertheless built a fortress with the expectation that someday something would.
Monday, September 28, 2015, dawned cloudless in South Florida. The night before, forecasters watching the skies from a concrete bunker just outside Miami had seen something interesting: a low-pressure system 400 miles southwest of Bermuda. To the experts at the National Hurricane Centre, it looked like the germ of something. Winds were blowing at about 35 miles per hour, but the forecasters didn’t seem concerned. “Little change in strength is forecast during the next 48 hours,” one of them wrote at 11 P.M.
Maybe it would turn into a storm, but probably not much more. Major hurricanes don’t usually originate in the mid-latitudes. They typically come from the trade winds that blow off the western coast of Africa into the Caribbean, where there is warm water to fuel big tempests. Even if the gathering winds became a storm, projections showed it staying far from land—it looked to the forecasters like it’d curve harmlessly to the north.
Still, Captain Rich Lorenzen, commanding officer back at the Coast Guard’s Air Station Clearwater, likes to say that when it comes to weather, as soon as a puff of air wafts off Africa’s coast, he’s watching. The formation—named Tropical Depression 11—was in his briefing when he came into the office on Monday.
That same morning, along the Miami River, the 12-member crew of a freighter named Minouche was getting ready to cast off. The Minouche, 212 feet long with two cargo booms sprouting mid-deck, was tied up at Caribbean Shipping, a modest docking operation in a neighbourhood of metal-recycling shops and warehouses.
The 35-year-old Bolivian-flagged vessel was captained by a Filipino named Renelo Gelera. The Minouche was operated by a tiny firm called Eva de Shipping (in some of the paperwork the name was elided to the unfortunate “Evade Shipping”). The Minouche was the company’s only vessel, and the corporate office was listed as the dock in Miami where the ship kept a slip—in other words, the company was the ship itself. Every month or so, the Minouche made a run from Miami to Haiti. The plan this particular Monday was to set off for Port-de-Paix with a cargo of construction materials, food, bicycles, car parts, refrigerators, and groceries.
By late morning, two tugs had arrived to tow the Minouche down the black sheen of the Miami River, out into Biscayne Bay. From there the course was southeast to Haiti. Looking out from the deck, the crew had no reason to think they wouldn’t arrive by Thursday, just as scheduled. The skies were clear. The sun was out. It was a calm end-of-summer day.
But up north, more than 500 miles out in the Atlantic, the winds of Tropical Depression 11 were increasing. By nightfall they were blowing at 40 miles per hour, strong enough to earn the storm a name and an upgrade: Meteorologists were now watching Tropical Storm Joaquin.
The Minouche was a minnow compared with El Faro, an American commercial freighter that stretched 790 feet, longer than two and a half football fields. That thing was a floating city. It performed the same job as the Minouche, just more of it, ferrying goods between Jacksonville, Florida, and Puerto Rico. On Tuesday morning, at its slip at the Jacksonville Port Authority, the 33-member crew was securing the last of its 391 containers and 294 trailers and cars.
They’d be under way by Tuesday night in order to reach San Juan by Friday, October 2. Captain Michael Davidson and his sailors were no doubt aware of the tropical storm that was brewing, but they could have been comforted by what forecasters were saying: Joaquin was going to track well north of where they were headed. Plus, a leviathan like El Faro could crash through 45-mile-per-hour winds with ease, if it came to that.
But even as El Faro was leaving port, Joaquin was gaining strength. By Wednesday morning, it was a Category 1 hurricane, and growing by the hour, it seemed. It became a Category 2 on Wednesday evening. Now the winds were blowing at 105 miles per hour. “Once it became a hurricane, it became a major hurricane fast,” Robbie Berg, a specialist at the National Hurricane Centre, said.
The prevailing pattern for storms like this is for them to head west, then curve north. But Joaquin had been defying all the patterns so far. It was somehow moving south toward the Bahamas—toward the paths of El Faro and the Minouche and dozens of other vessels at sea. By Wednesday night, people on the islands near the storm’s unruly path were warned to take shelter; ships at sea were advised to immediately return to port. The National Hurricane Centre issued a blunt warning to anybody in the Bahamas: “Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.”
Hundreds of miles away, a sailor who knew El Faro well watched the concern grow on TV. From his home in Maine, the ship’s former second mate, Charles Baird, texted his friend Captain Davidson to alert him to Joaquin’s growing menace. Davidson wrote back that he was aware of the situation—and confident he could duck south and sail under the storm.
It’s impossible to know what exactly motivated Captain Davidson. Did his experience tell him the storm posed no threat? The forecasts still predicted Joaquin would track north-northwest. Did he feel pressure to stick to his schedule? Time was fuel and salaries. (Tote Maritime, the company that owned and operated El Faro, has said the captain made his own itinerary and route.) Or was he just confident that 800-foot-long ships didn’t sink?
By early Thursday morning, October 1, some members of the crew were starting to worry about the route. It looked to them like they were sailing into a monster. Danielle Randolph, the 34-year-old second mate, e-mailed her mother, Laurie Bobillot, at 4:39 A.M. “Not sure if you have been following the weather at all but there is a hurricane [sic] out here and we are heading straight into it,” Randolph wrote. Outside, the winds raged at 120 miles per hour, whipping 30-foot seas. “Winds are super bad and seas are not great. Love to everyone.”
Randolph, a petite five feet three—“five foot nothing,” her mother would tease her—was tough as iron. A graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, she dreamed of captaining her own ship one day. Now, her note left her mother unnerved. Never before had Randolph e-mailed during a storm. Her messages only came afterward, so that her mother wouldn’t worry. And never, ever, had she signed off “Love to everyone.” Typically, she’d end with her initial or something more casual, like “Say hi to everyone.”
As El Faro and her worried crew ploughed toward Joaquin, the Minouche—about 200 miles away—was racing east in an attempt to outrun the storm. Both ships were now battling 20- and 30-foot seas, and on the Minouche, cargo had started to rock loose. The shifting weight caused the ship to list to port, so the crew filled a ballast tank and weighted down the starboard side.
As they worked, a monster wave struck, knocking the cargo booms loose, swinging the giant cranes to the left side of the ship, compounding the list. The adjustments, the countermeasures, nothing seemed to work—the storm kept up its assault. Quickly, the crew tried jettisoning cargo, tossing containers over in a desperate scramble to stabilize the ship. That’s when she lost engine power.
With the ship unable to navigate, the waves took over, turning the boat until she was broadside to the waves. Drifting powerless, the Minouche was now nature’s punching bag. On board, they were running out of options. Night was descending, and there was nothing left to do but enact the terrible routines that every sailor dreads. A crew member sent a hurried e-mail to the ship’s agent in Miami and activated the emergency signal that provided would-be rescuers with the ship’s location. Meanwhile, the captain authorized a distress call on the Inmarsat satellite network. Then he ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship.
Earlier that morning, Captain Davidson, perched on the bridge of El Faro, was looking for the same thing that eluded the Minouche: a break in the weather. Desperate to wiggle out of the storm, he found only rougher and rougher seas; the ship was taking a beating, and by 7 A.M. on Thursday, Davidson had lost his engines. He knew he needed help.
Davidson grabbed the ship’s satellite phone and punched in the number for an official from Tote Maritime. When there was no answer, he left a message. “We have a navigational incident,” Davidson said in a reassuringly calm voice. “I’ll keep it short. A scuttle popped open on 2 Deck, and we were having some free communication of water go down the 3 Hold. Getting a pretty good list. I want to just touch…contact you verbally here. Everybody’s safe, but I want to talk to you.”
Then Davidson called Tote’s 24-hour call centre and spoke to an operator.
“I have a marine emergency,” Davidson said. “We had a hull breach. A scuttle blew open during a storm. We have water down in 3 Hold with a heavy list. We’ve lost the main propulsion unit. The engineers cannot get it going.” Before long, a message had been relayed to the Coast Guard—the ship was in trouble, the Coasties were told, but “not at risk of sinking.” Tote Maritime, now in touch with the Coast Guard, mulled its options for its foundering ship and decided the best bet was to get Davidson to steer it into shallow waters; a course was plotted for some small islands near the Turks and Caicos. Then they called El Faro’s satellite phone to pass the orders to Davidson. No luck.
And so the Coast Guard waited. There was no distress call, no reason for worry, just yet. El Faro was a behemoth of a ship, more than capable of handling some waves. Plus, it’s not uncommon for a vessel to lose communication in a storm. Often a Coast Guard helicopter can help solve the trouble by dropping some radios. They just have to locate the ship.
As the Coasties on Great Inagua watched Joaquin move in on Thursday afternoon, they knew that if any ships were still out at sea, chances were good they’d need help. They waited. Dense, roiling clouds the colour of dread spit needles of rain, and the wind bent the scrubby palm trees nearly horizontal.
At about 8 P.M., the base in Clearwater called with news of an emergency: The freighter Minouche, with a crew of 12, was going down. Two Good Samaritan ships were rushing to the scene, but the violent waves kept them from offering any help. On the phone from Florida, Commander Scott Phy had a question: Could a copter squad from Great Inagua venture into the storm? As the rains lashed the hangar, McCarthy didn’t hesitate. Absolutely, he said.
Mustering his crew, McCarthy detailed what was happening out at sea—and Andrews, the flight mechanic, let the words he was hearing sink in. “…Abandoning ship.” He took a deep breath. You’ve prepped for this a thousand times, he told himself. He jogged over to the Jayhawk for a quick assessment. Inside, he eyed the big water pump the chopper carried to bail out sinking vessels. Wouldn’t be needing that, he thought. This ship was already a goner. Taking it out would create room for people—if they could pull them out of the storm.
In the hangar, Cournia changed into his bright orange neoprene wet suit and strapped on his rescue swimmer’s vest—eight pounds of gear that included lights, a radio, and a knife. By now, the wind was blowing so ferociously outside that the men had to climb into the Jayhawk inside the hangar and employ a little tractor called a mule to tow the chopper out to the tarmac. Outside, the night was black, and McCarthy and Post, the two pilots, strapped on their night-vision goggles. McCarthy may have been the senior aviator, but he asked Post to pilot the craft—hoping this was going to become a rescue mission, he wanted to be free to supervise. Post toggled the ignition switch, and the rotor blades cranked to life, lifting them into the rain, dark, and wind. Against the blowing force of the storm, he manoeuvred the chopper off the ground. Now, gaining speed, he pointed the aircraft south and watched as the scattering of lights along the island’s coast disappeared. Nothing but an inky void in all directions. The rotors thudded. The radios crackled. And the fearsome wind pushed the Jayhawk forward, up, and to the side.
On the deck of the Minouche, the crew—12 mostly Haitian sailors in T-shirts and shorts, some in flip-flops, many barefoot—strapped on life vests as the ship’s list grew worse. Somebody dragged out the 250-pound life raft, which when dropped into the water inflated to form a black hexagon with an orange tent canopy. As soon as it looked safe, the men jumped in after it and crawled inside. Now came a new and desperate challenge: waiting. As the waves crashed over them, the men huddled in their raft, clutching flashlights and hoping someone received their message. Tiny lights on their life preservers glowed in the dark.
After about 30 minutes in the sky, the Jayhawk reached the Minouche’s coordinates. Post piloted over the area in a wide, banking curve. Below, twinkling in the rain, was the spectral outline of a doomed freighter. All its lights were on, and it was listing heavily to port, like a staggering, wounded beast. The helicopter zipped by in a sweeping circle, and when it came around a few minutes later, the decks were already underwater, glowing a dull amber. They made another orbit. This time the ship was gone; only light was visible beneath the waves. The speed of the submersion shocked the chopper’s crew. It was a massive ship, the human world’s interface with the ocean, and it was so quickly overwhelmed by the waves. Cournia stared at the ghostly glow, and whatever enthusiasm he’d had for getting in the water now drained from him.
“Target located,” Cournia announced over his radio as they made another sweep. He was aiming the helicopter’s infra-red camera off in the distance, where the raft bobbed in the waves. It was a mile or two from the ship. Post flew over the orange-tented raft and then tried to steady the Jayhawk into a hover. But the wind was pushing him hard, and the rain and dark were messing with his equilibrium. Instead of looking out the windshield to get his bearings, he had to rely on the hover bars on the instrument panel that showed the craft’s relationship to a fixed point. In the back, Andrews turned on the main search light, and as when flicking on a car’s brights in the fog, the rain reflected the light right back into Post’s eyes. They shut it off and relied on lights mounted to the underbelly of the helicopter to illuminate the raft below.
With their eyes on the rescue target, the crew quickly discussed their options. They decided to lower Cournia down on a cable into the water, where he would disconnect and swim to the raft. Then Andrews would use the hoist to lower the steel basket to the water and Cournia would load the survivors in one at a time, so Andrews could winch them up to the Jayhawk. What sounds simple, though, rarely is.
Cournia strapped on his swim helmet and buckled his vest. He put on his mask and fins. Then Andrews opened the door. A blast of wind rushed in as Cournia looked down at the chaotic waves 30 feet below. His stomach dropped. Rescue swimmers like Cournia are the Coast Guard’s most elite operatives, and the path to becoming one is brutally difficult. Less than half of those who are tapped to try out make it through swimmer school, a gantlet of harrowing simulations and near drownings. And all that effort prepares graduates physically and psychologically for this moment right here—a battle with the wind and the waves. The more I stand around, Cournia thought, the more nervous I’ll get. So let’s start moving. He gave a thumbs-up to Andrews.
“Swimmer’s going out cabin door,” Andrews shouted into the radio. “Swimmer’s on the way down.” The flight mechanic needed to be the pilot’s eyes at this point. “Swimmer’s in the water. Swimmer’s away. Swimmer’s okay. Clear to move.”
“Roger,” Post responded.
To Cournia, the water felt reassuringly warm, but the ferocity of the waves caught him off guard. Still, he was now in his element; his apprehensions lifted as he steadied himself against the waves. He was amazed at how fast the raft was moving as he swam after it. Catching up and grabbing hold, Cournia unzipped the curtain of the tent and peered inside. Twelve faces stared back, immobile, the whites of the sailors’ eyes visible in the dull glow of their lights.
“Okay, who speaks English?” Cournia barked into the raft.
The captain raised his hand. Good, Cournia thought, I have my translator. Next, Cournia asked if anyone was injured. The answer was no. Then he explained that he was going to get them all into that helicopter whooshing above, one at a time. “Any questions?” The captain wanted to know the status of their ship.
“It’s gone,” Cournia told them. As the information was translated into Creole, shock flitted across their faces like an electric current. It was as if, bobbing alone out there in the storm, they only now were grasping the magnitude of their situation.
Back in Clearwater, Coast Guard commander Phy and others listened closely as Cournia went into the water, following the action from the Jayhawk’s radios with rapt attention. Unresolved in their minds, though, was another 800-foot-long mystery: Where was El Faro? Why hadn’t they heard from the big cargo ship in hours? What was going on out there? Unlike with the Minouche, there had been no emergency signal, no way to know where El Faro was, much less how she was doing. The only thing the Coast Guard could do was try to get eyes on the vessel, and they could only do that in daylight.
With one rescue already under way, the base commander, Captain Lorenzen, pondered the toughest choice of his career. If he didn’t hear from El Faro by morning, he’d have to decide whether to send one of his giant C-130s into the eye of a Category 4 hurricane. He huddled with officers, including the on-duty pilot, Lieutenant Commander Jeff Hustace. Was it possible to hunt the ship in a hurricane? Could they risk it? Hustace was game. “We’ll give it a try,” he said. Then he was told to get some sleep.
Cournia grabbed the most frightened-looking man in the raft and pulled him into the water. He signalled for the “basket,” a welded-stainless-steel cross between a seat and a stretcher. When it arrived, Cournia loaded the survivor in and motioned for the hoist. Then he turned to swim back to the raft—only it wasn’t there. Winds and current had pulled it 100 yards away.
Meanwhile, up in the Jayhawk’s cabin, Andrews was unloading the first rescue. The man, barefoot, in cut-off blue jeans and a T-shirt, was cramped with fear. His eyes were as big as hubcaps, and he clung to the basket. Even now, safe inside the chopper, he wouldn’t let go. Andrews yelled and began prying off his fingers and pushing him from the steel contraption. After all the commotion, Andrews looked down for his rescue swimmer. At first he couldn’t see him, but then he spotted Cournia, chasing after the raft.
It took Cournia five minutes of hard swimming to catch up to the inflatable. He pulled out another sailor and waved for the basket. After loading the survivor and sending the basket up, Cournia looked over and saw that the raft had again drifted. Watching from the Jayhawk, Andrews didn’t think that Cournia could last if he had to constantly chase the raft. He radioed down for Cournia to hook in, and he hoisted the swimmer up.
Andrews and McCarthy consulted. They decided they’d try to “hover taxi” Cournia where he needed to go—dangling him from the cable just above the waves until he was close to the raft. This worked for the next couple of survivors. But the process was making Cournia impatient. He was thinking about the Jayhawk’s fuel and feeling the need to move faster. That’s when he pointed at one scared survivor, grabbed his collar, and pulled him from the raft. The man gave a high-pitched scream and jumped into the water on top of him.
In a panicked clench, the man wrapped his legs around Cournia and pushed down on the rescuer’s shoulders. Cournia’s training kicked in like a feral instinct. Suck, tuck, and duck. He sucked in a full breath, then tucked his chin down to protect his throat. He wiggled one arm free and tapped the man gently to let him know everything was okay. But the sailor freaked even more, screaming louder and thrashing his arms in the water. So with his free hand, Cournia jammed his thumb into a pressure point under the sailor’s jawbone, just as he’d been trained. With his trapped arm, Cournia was able to ram his other thumb into a pressure point above the man’s left elbow. The sailor froze. Cournia quickly flipped him around, grabbed him in a cross-chest carry, and swam him to the basket.
The following couple of survivors went smoothly—in the basket and up to the helicopter. But as Cournia loaded the next sailor into the basket and signalled for the hoist, a gust of wind dropped the Jayhawk and a wave came rearing up. As the copter dipped dangerously low, the soothingly robotic voice of a warning sensor cautioned: “Altitude. Altitude.” Meanwhile, the wave caught the basket—with the man inside—and carried it away from the copter. It was as if a hooked fish was pulling fishing line from a reel.
Andrews desperately played the cable out from the hoist while giving furious directions to the pilot: “Back and left 20, back and left 30.” Pilots don’t like hearing numbers getting bigger. It means something’s wrong—and getting worse. The basket, yanked from the helicopter, had pulled through the wave and come swinging back like a pendulum. After several harrowing minutes—both for the crew and for the man yo-yoing against wind and waves in the basket—the steel cage reached the Jayhawk. The sailor inside, bloodied but alive, rolled out onto the cabin floor.
Andrews looked down at the heap of bodies now huddled on his floor. In the flash of strobe lights, he could see the chopper filling up—he needed that floor space. So Andrews instructed the sailors to move. No response. He motioned for them to find a place to sit. No response. Gradually, Andrews saw that the men were catatonic with shock. After a minute, as if waking from a nightmare, they slowly began to respond.
In order to burn fuel as efficiently as he could, Post had positioned the hovering helicopter so it faced the headwind. Still, with only eight survivors in the cabin, McCarthy, watching the fuel gauge, signaled that they had to return to base. Andrews hoisted Cournia up to the Jayhawk, and the winded swimmer yanked off his mask. He was exhausted and exhilarated and desperate to get back into the fight. “There’s still people there!” Cournia shouted above the rotor’s roar. The implication was that he wanted to stay behind with them. But McCarthy was firm: They’d be back soon. “They’ll be okay, they’re on the raft.”
With the wind behind them, the trip back to Great Inagua took about 15 minutes. The men were pumped for a quick turnaround. But as they hit the tarmac, a bird flew up into the rotor blades and pureed itself. The bird strike cost them 40 minutes, as they were required to pore over all the intake ports looking for feathers and bones. A quick but thorough inspection cleared the helicopter. Andrews, meanwhile, played out all of the hoist cable, checking for broken strands. It, too, looked clean. At the same time, McCarthy evaluated the most important equipment—his crew. No one slurred his speech, their eyes focused. Everyone looked ready for more. “We were in our battle rhythm,” McCarthy surmised. It was about 4 A.M. when they flew back to the Minouche.
On the scene, Cournia dropped into the waves again and quickly recovered one sailor. But as Andrews guided the cable lifting the basket into the Jayhawk, he felt a snag on his glove. Sure enough, a few strands had broken. There was no way around it—they would have to return to base and swap helicopters. In keeping with their failing luck, when they radioed their return, there was another problem: The storm had jammed shut the hangar’s 60,000-pound cast-concrete doors. As the helicopter sped to the base, the ground crew was furiously trying to pry the doors open with the tow tractors. The doors were wrenched open, just as the Jayhawk landed.
By the time they returned to the Minouche’s crew in the new Jayhawk, the storm had grown worse. The jagged stabs of lightning illuminating the void had increased. This, combined with the static electricity generated by the helicopter itself, had the potential to charge the metal all around them. Andrews had put a static-discharge cable on the basket to siphon off the charges, but the waves had ripped it off. Cournia, now in the water, was recovering the first of the last three survivors. As the cable lifted the basket out of the water, he reached up to steady it, and bam! An electric shock convulsed him to his chest, locking both arms. After the charge passed through him, he pried his hands off the steel. There was nothing to do about it, he thought, except be careful. From then on, he had to make sure the basket was in the water and grounded before he touched it. With that last complication addressed, he was able to load the remaining two survivors into the basket. Then the cable came down for him. Cournia clipped in for his final hoist up. Post radioed their return, and the Jayhawk turned west to Great Inagua just as dawn began to stain the grey clouds orange.
The crew of the Minouche had been saved, but as day broke in Clearwater, one very big problem remained: the mystery of El Faro. At 6 A.M., the C-130 pilot, Jeff Hustace, woke to the on-base radio announcement: “Put the ready C-130 on the line. First-light search for motor vessel El Faro in the vicinity of Crooked Island.” That was his plane. He was going out in the storm.
The plan was to approach the hurricane from the north, then fly in between its bands toward the assumed last position of El Faro. Joaquin was still not adhering to any models. Hurricane winds stretched 50 miles out from the eye, and tropical-storm-force winds stretched for an additional 205 miles. But the storm had simply stopped moving above the Bahamas’ Crooked Island. It was just sitting there, spinning in place, feeding on that overheated water. Hustace and his crew lifted off the tarmac at Clearwater and set course for the centre of Joaquin.
On their approach, the crew could see the stratified layers of clouds and precipitation. Hustace was amazed at how organized the storm was, with pronounced dark bands, then a gap through which they could see sunlight and blue sky, then another dark band. They picked their way inside the storm by flying between these bands until they got to the “search box,” the area where El Faro was most likely to be. But the storm was hampering the radar. So Hustace flew out of the chaos, descended to 2,000 feet, and then flew back in.
As they raced between the clouds, visibility would drop to zero, and sudden gusts would plunge the plane 800 feet at a time, or an updraft would shoot the plane forward 50 miles per hour faster than they had been going. It was the toughest flying Hustace had ever done.
The crew, using radar and the naked eye, scoured the surface of the water. They flew for nearly eight hours, their attention locked on the wild sea below. But they saw nothing but sea and storm. For the next week, the Coast Guard flew more than 250 hours over 183,000 square miles. After several days, a Jayhawk crew noticed some debris and flew down for a closer look. There, drifting in the waves, was an orange survival suit with a body inside. Just as they were about to retrieve it, the Jayhawk was called away to an electronic beacon that might have signalled survivors. A false alarm. When they returned, the body could not be found.
Today El Faro sits nearly three miles beneath the surface. The loss of all 33 hands made the sinking the worst American maritime incident in decades. And though the wreck has been located—with her bridge seemingly violently ripped from the vessel—many mysteries remain about the final hours aboard El Faro and the nature of the storm that took her down.
Some of those questions will be answered in the coming months by the voice-data recorder that investigators recovered from the seafloor this summer. Others will be taken up by the National Transportation Safety Board, which plans to issue a report next year about whether errors in judgment contributed to the disaster. Other questions could be addressed by the courts: The families of 23 crew members have reached settlements with Tote Services, El Faro’s parent company, but others are still pursuing suits.
What isn’t in doubt, say those who studied the ferocious and chaotic storm, is that Hurricane Joaquin is a harbinger of storms to come. When it hit last fall, Joaquin was the strongest hurricane of non-tropical origin ever recorded by satellite. A few weeks later, a monster Category 5 hurricane named Patricia swelled in the Pacific over what the NHC called “anomalously warm waters.” Its winds reached 215 miles per hour, making it the most intense storm on record in the Western Hemisphere. The speed with which it developed defied expectations.
Those expectations are now changing as our storms turn big and erratic. On a warming planet, seawater evaporates quickly, transferring heat to the atmosphere, where that warmth feeds winds. More heat begets faster evaporation—which leads to stronger winds. So far the models, theories, and observations support the forecast that the future will have more superstorms. “The frequency of hurricanes may go down, but the incidents of the high-end storms should go up,” Dr. Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT, explained. “A greater frequency of Category 4s and 5s.”
For those trying to understand—or live with—the realities of our new weather patterns, the future holds a turbocharged uncertainty. This means merchant sailors will have to re-assess the dangers of their trade. Coast Guard crews on remote islands will be more necessary than ever.
The guardsmen on Great Inagua that night last fall when the storm hit think often about what they learned. In the soggy aftermath of their rescue, after the hugs, some of the Jayhawk crew lingered in the hangar to hear Captain Gelera describe the waves that took over his ship. The failing engines. The slipping cargo. The feeling of dread.
The survivors of the Minouche were eventually flown to Haiti, and with their ship gone, none have so far returned to Miami, at least according to their shipping agent and the men who work the docks where the Minouche once tied up. (None of the crew could be reached for this story. Their accounts come from official reports and conversations they had with the Coast Guard crew.) It would be understandable if they were trying to forget their night spent in a hurricane’s grip.
As for the Jayhawk crew, what they hold on to is something different. To a man, they all recall the eerie light they saw from the chopper as they approached the dying ship. That dull glow dimming to dark as the Minouche slowly slipped under. “When I saw that ship lit up and the waves washing over it, I went from ‘This is gonna be awesome’ to, well…,” Cournia recalled, his voice trailing off as he remembered how they raced into the storm, how they fought all night. And how, finally, for a dozen fortunate sailors, they managed to keep the darkness from overtaking the light.