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El Faro widow turns anguish into mission for safer ships

Rochelle Hamm holds the hard hat of her husband, Frank, at her home in Jacksonville, Fla., Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Frank Hamm was a new helmsman on the freighter El Faro, that sank in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015. All 33 crew members were killed. Hamm's helmet was found on Ormond Beach, Fla., on December 2015. The helmet, found by a couple cleaning trash off a Florida beach, washed ashore two months after he disappeared. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Rochelle Hamm’s eyes fill with tears when she reads her terrified husband’s last words — uttered as the cargo freighter El Faro went down in hurricane, taking the lives of Frank Hamm and 32 others.

“My feet are slipping! I’m goin’ down!” he cries after the crew is ordered to abandon ship.

“I’M A GONER!” he shouts.

A few lines later, the transcript ends, along with the lives of Hamm and the captain who desperately sought to save him.

“It’s difficult to read,” Rochelle Hamm acknowledges. “But it helps me continue to build my list.”

That list includes visits to Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, among many others — people in power who might join her campaign to make the maritime industry safer. “When this happened, my journey changed, and I knew that it couldn’t happen again,” the mother of five said, in her suburban Jacksonville, Florida, home. “I had to be focused.”

She is pressing for what she calls Hamm Alert, a new safety system that would keep ships in port during major storms. An online petition has collected more than 11,000 signatures in support.

“This tragedy could have been prevented with more oversight of shipping companies, similar to air traffic controllers for planes, to stop companies from sending ships into dangerous weather,” she said.

The El Faro went down on Oct. 1, 2015, as it sailed near San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. It was toting cargo from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Its captain, Michael Davidson, piloted his 40-year-old ship into Hurricane Joaquin, the most powerful October storm since the 1800s to hit those waters.

Two days before the sinking Frank called Rochelle before he was out of phone range as the El Faro left Jacksonville on its way to Puerto Rico, as he always did. He usually followed up with an email each day until they reached the island. No email ever arrived, and Rochelle instead got a call from her husband’s employer, TOTE Maritime, Inc., saying the ship had disappeared.

Months passed until search crews found the wreckage nearly three miles down on the seafloor near the Bahamas. Still, the ship’s voyage data recorder, or “black box,” remained missing. After another try, searchers returned to the site last summer and miraculously recovered the recorder. The National Transportation Safety Board issued a 500-page transcript with the ship’s final hours of bridge conversations recorded by six microphones embedded in the room.

In the transcript, jittery crewmembers openly question the captain’s decision to try to outrun the storm, and work hard to save the ship and themselves even as their fate becomes clear.

At the end of the document, a helmsman identified as AB-1 by NTSB pleads for help from the ship’s captain as the El Faro goes down; Rochelle Hamm recognized her husband immediately.

Each day, she is reminded of him by a green hard hat that washed ashore two months after he disappeared. The helmet, found by a couple cleaning trash off a Florida beach, has the word “FRANK” scrawled in black marker across the front and back in her husband’s handwriting. The couple later connected with Rochelle, and gave her the hat.

She keeps the hat, still encrusted with sand and dried seaweed, in a bag near her bed.

The El Faro’s captain chose to sail about 60 miles from Hurricane Joaquin’s path. He based his decision at least partly on inaccurate weather forecasting data he’d received, but also refused to authorize requests from his crew to sail farther away, or turn around altogether.

Representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard have met with Rochelle Hamm, and she says they have told her they will include her proposal for the Hamm ALERT in their recommendations when the agencies’ investigative reports are released.

“One person should not decide the fate of others,” she said. She said she’s talked two of her children out of becoming merchant mariners, at least until the Hamm Alert system is in place.

“Stuff goes on out there on the water all the time and is never reported. It cannot happen again.”

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Follow Jason Dearen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen

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