The EL TORO TRAGEDY
PART I : The Incident
by David Pascoe, Marine Surveyor
The story begins when Bob Smith purchased a fleet of 5 aging wooden party boats in 1989, among these the then 32 year old "ELTORO". According to Coast Guard interviews, Smith said that he relied heavily on a 1987 survey performed for the previous owner (emphasis added), and the fact that the vessels held current Certificates of Inspection. In other words, Smith said that he was relying on the Coast Guard to ensure that his vessels were safe. Smith had no independent surveys of the vessels made on his own behalf. The purchase was made with no log books or maintenance records being given the buyer, nor were any kept following the purchase.
Vessel Particulars EL TORO is described as a 58' party boat specifically designed for party fishing and built in Norfolk, Virginia in 1961. Typical of her type for that era and region, she has what is known as a "bay bottom," being transversely planked in 1.75" yellow pine on a longitudinal framing system. She has a 16.5' beam, draws 4.7' and is powered with a single 310 HP Detroit Diesel. Perhaps most significantly, she was fastened with galvanized cut nails. She is of a type well known to the region in which she operated.
Coast Guard Inspections The past history involving the U.S.C.G. program for inspected vessels is interesting from a number of points. The investigation report delves back in Coast Guard inspection records an to April 1988 drydock report, but not earlier. The following direct quotes from the report are considered relevant:
Events of the Tragedy On December 4, 1993, the evening TV weather reports indicated predicted winds of 22 to 30 mph for the Chesapeake Bay. Bob Smith, who would pilot the vessel on the following mornings voyage, admitted that he had seen these reports. At 3:30 AM on the morning of the 5th, NOAA issued a small craft warning with predicted winds of 20-25 knots and six foot seas. At 0730 Smith's brother Carl listened to the VHF weather report and heard the small craft warning. At that time seas were calm. But it was known that a frontal system was approaching that would soon change the current conditions.
Note: The report conveniently does not mention wind direction, along with a great number of other relevant details and evidence that any surveyor would consider an absolute necessity in an investigation of such magnitude. One of the prominent features of this report is it's selective use of evidence and major omissions of evidence of critical importance. One can easily anticipate that if ever called into evidence in a trial, the author would not have an easy time of it before a skilled trial attorney.
At 0800 twenty passengers boarded the EL TORO II to go fishing. The crew consisted of Bob Smith, his brother Carl, and a 19 year old male deckhand. Bob Smith held an appropriate Coast Guard issued operators license and the other two held no licenses.
The vessel cast off at 0815 for the fishing grounds "almost due east of Smith Point, Virginia and about a half a mile south of the Maryland/Virginia border where it arrived around 1015. This position is approximately in the center of the bay. The fetch in any given direction is ten miles or more, but the report doesn't mention this. At no time were any of the passengers given any safety instructions or briefing. Remember that this is in December when the water temperature is indicated as being 50 degrees. It is also of interest that the vessel operators did not keep any kind of log nor did they create a passenger manifest, meaning that they did not even know the names of their passengers except for one.
At 0853 gale warnings were issued for Chesapeake Bay, predicting 30-35 knot winds but Captain Smith did not monitor VHF weather channels after departing. Smith later stated that he did not consider the EL TORO to be a small craft anyway. Another vessel in the area first noted deteriorating conditions around 1200. This vessel was monitoring weather conditions via cellular phone to a source 20 miles to the northwest. The use of a cellular phone obviously indicates that this operator was expecting very bad weather to approach suddenly and wanted to be prepared to head for home in time. This vessel, upon receiving the bad weather report, attempted to contact EL TORO by VHF but was unsuccessful.
Although the Coast Guard obviously has interviewed the operator of this vessel, the report gives no details or names. Why not?
By 1220 it was raining but Smith reports only a light breeze and "conditions were not adverse." This despite the other vessel reporting at the same time seas of 6-8' at Smith Point only ten miles due south. Finally, at 1245 Smith decides to head for home. "While enroute, wind speed and wave heights increased . . .To maximize passenger comfort, he operated the vessel at approximately 4.5 knots, half-speed . . . as the vessel rode over the confused wave pattern at the mouth of the Potomac River. Wind and waves were predominantly from the northwest."
Here we can see that the vessel is already in trouble because it has to reduce speed to one-half, thereby at least doubling the amount of time it will take to return to home port. Why the captain does not seek closer refuge is never addressed in the report. No mention of the tide is made as to how its ebb or flow would affect sea conditions vis-a-vie the Potomac River.
At about 1345 Smith directed the mate to check on passengers and the engine room bilges. Passengers saw him open the engine room hatch and express no concern at what he saw. One passenger . . . "saw into the space and noted liquids in the bilges, four to five inches below the engine mounts." The mate reported to Captain Smith that all was well. "By this time seas had built to 5 to 7 feet but the vessel was taking only spray over the bow." (Note: the report does not attribute direct quotes to any of the persons interviewed. These quotes are of the report language only.)
Yet the report goes on to say that at around 1355, ten minutes later, Bob Smith personally went aft and checked the condition of the engine room, only ten minutes after his mate. Obviously, all is not well. But, by this time the engine had stopped and Smith was greeted with an engine room full to the top of the engine with water.
At this point, the vessel is clearly in trouble and the Captain recognized it as such. A mayday was sent and the passengers directed to don what turned out to be aging cork life preservers. Carl Smith then organized the passengers into a bucket brigade and an attempt was made to bail out the sinking craft. Interestingly, the report says that the buckets were more effective than the bilge pumps.
By 1406 it is reported that the main deck was awash. By 1430 the decks were still awash but passengers were complaining that nothing had been done so far to deploy what apparently is a single house top mounted life raft. Carl Smith assured passengers that the Coast Guard was coming soon, despite being advised of a 30 minute ETA. Even the passengers were smart enough to know that 10, 20, or 30 minutes in fifty degree water would mean death. Finally, the passengers went up on the house top and launched the raft themselves. The question here is, what conclusions will the Coast Guard, which is the author of this information, draw about the behavior of the Captain and crew?
The Coast Guard report identifies it as a buoyant "apparatus," probably an appropriate name for one of those wrapped cork beauties with a rope net bottom, which is what it was. By 1446 all but three passengers and crew had abandoned ship into the "buoyant apparatus" in 50 degree waters of the Chesapeake. At this point the report is very vague about what happened next, but the report does say that three persons were rescued from the water, outside of the raft. One of these was the 19 year old mate who later died of exposure. Yet the Captain and his brother managed to get safely in the raft. The implication here is that the 19 year old sacrificed his life that another passenger might have a place in the life raft while the Captain and his brother save themselves. Oddly, no mention of the mate's heroism is made. Why not? Perhaps because he doesn't hold a CG license? Would that have helped? Of course the report will make note of the heroic efforts of their own people and the exposure that they suffered.
In the meantime, another three persons - all passengers - remained on the house top (while the owner and his brother got in the raft) which apparently remained above water and were rescued by a life raft from a recently arrived Coast Guard vessel.
Two passengers and the 19 year old crewman ultimately died of exposure while hospitalized.
With this brief summary of events as extracted from the Coast Guard report, we can already identify a number of serious problems, but there are more to come. Not the least of these is the extraordinarily lax attitudes of party boat owners toward the condition of their vessels and the safety of their passengers. Just from the language of the report we can discern questionable behavior of the Captain. How can anyone discount that 5-7 foot seas are a threat to an aging wooden vessel with passengers aboard? He was in the vicinity of the mouth of the Potomac and knew of the dangerous currents. He knew there was bad weather approaching, and he could have sought nearby shelter in time and yet refused. Gale warnings were ignored. Another vessel attempted to warn him by radio, but apparently he wasn't monitoring his radio as the report says he was.
Again, judging by the report, the captain had all available knowledge and ability to avert the disaster, but did not. Yet the Captain is completely absolved by the report. Why? Is the writer of the report so arrogant or stupid that he is not aware that his own writings condemn the Captain? This willful ignoring of the facts as contained in their own report is repeated again and again.
Marine surveyors who perform surveys on these craft are no strangers to such happenings and the terrible conditions aboard these vessels. The tragedy of the EL TORO points up vividly why we as surveyors ought to be paying closer attention and applying more rigid standards to these vessels. As this tragedy so amply demonstrates, surveyors should not ascribe any significance to the fact that a vessel is U.S.C.G. certified.
In the next section we'll take a look at the actions of one independent surveyor, the actions of the Coast Guard inspectors, and finally the Coast Guard report itself. For if the failings of the various parties involved doesn't convince us of the need for extra caution, the manner in which the Coast Guard deals with it's investigation will. Remember that Coast Guard report is, in itself, a conflict of interest. Here we have the certifying authority of the vessel investigating the loss of the vessel and the activities of many others that were involved with it. Knowing this, can there now be any doubt but that the Coast Guard will absolve itself? Read on. (next)