I'm sorry for your loss.
I heard those words so many times in October of 2015. Friends, family, coworkers, and classmates all reached out as the news slowly trickled in about the wreck of the El Faro. At first, it seemed maybe it was just a communication glitch, or an effect from the hurricane. But as the days passed with no contact from the ship, those of us with friends and family members aboard huddled close to each other, standing a constant vigil hoping for news. Any news.
I was at work in Alaska when the ship disappeared. It was a normal day in October, quiet and calm, but a slight chill in the air indicating that winter wasn’t too far away. The “termination dust” was already moving its way down the mountains. Danielle’s mother had posted on Facebook, saying that her daughter’s ship had been in some heavy weather and had not been heard from in 24 hours. I thought it was scary, but no real need to panic, right? We’ve all had moments of distress at sea, and I tried to reason it through in my head. Perhaps they just lost their generators and have no electrical power for their communication equipment. Maybe the antennas snapped in the wind. Maybe they’re on their way into port right now and the next Facebook post will be a joyous one. That, of course, never happened. Her mother would update us every few hours, with no real change for days. Reality started to set in for all of us that the ship may be lost, along with her crew.
Before I go further, let me tell you about Danielle. I was 17 when I met her. But even before that, I had gotten a letter from Maine Maritime Academy. Two letters, actually. The first was my acceptance letter. I was going to be a midshipman in the fall of 2000! I was ecstatic. The second letter was from the Housing Department, telling me I had been paired with a girl from Rockland, Maine for my roommate. Her name was Danielle. I spoke to her on the phone once before we both headed to the Academy for our freshman year. She told me she had once visited Washington DC, which is not far from my home, and I told her I’d only been to Maine once in middle school and didn’t remember much about it. I told her how involved I was with the band at my high school, and she giggled that she also was in band. She played the flute.
Move-in day for the freshman class at MMA was as hectic as you would expect. My parents and I had driven for two days to get to Maine, in a minivan packed full of everything my mother thought I might need at school (and then some). I swear, we started packing for the fall semester in February. We arrived at MMA and stood in the check-in line to pick up my room keys and student ID. Then we ascended to my new digs on the third floor. I entered the room to find Danielle and her family had already arrived and were unpacking. She was there with her parents: her mother was a bubbly redhead with a huge heart; her father a quiet, stoic man on the surface but just a big softy underneath. Her younger brother, with whom I became good friends in the following years, was running around the room. He reminded me of my own little brother in many ways.
So off we went on our freshman year. Danielle and I hit it off immediately, and remained close throughout school, even though we only roomed together for one year. We weren’t without our differences, but we could always work them out in the end. Her family treated me as one of their own. MMA tends to attract students mostly from New England, and many of them would go home on the weekends. Being from Virginia, I was stuck on campus until Christmas break. Danielle would take me with her to Rockland, and we’d spend the weekend at her house. I’d beat her brother at Nintendo, and she and I would stay up a little too late talking about boys and school, until her dad barked at us to get to bed. They even threw me my 18th birthday party.
After we graduated, Danielle and I remained in contact. As every sailor knows, making time to see your maritime friends is difficult when you take into account geography and different work schedules. Still, Danielle and I were able to get together every few years. I always appreciated how we remained good friends even though our careers took us to different sides of the earth, sometimes to places with little or no means of regular communication, and even though we had differing (and fierce) opinions on things like politics and religion, she was always there to listen to my problems and offer advice or at least a beer.
Danielle was such a vibrant force of nature. She did exactly as she pleased, and ran over anything that stood in her path. She was tough and sweet and enigmatic. We worked through school together, and then went stumbling into “real life,” laughing the entire time. And then it was all over.
I remember the day it really hit me that there wasn’t going to be any rescue mission for the El Faro. The Coast Guard had called off the search. I hadn’t been sleeping much that week, except for the times I’d passed out from pure exhaustion. So many of my friends and family had called or messaged me to express their condolences. The crew of my vessel was exceptionally supportive. I had stayed as strong as I could on the outside, but as I lay there in my bunk on that October night, I suddenly found myself in tears. Not the weepy sad tears you get from watching a sappy movie, but the violent, gushing, deep sobbing that comes when you know you’ve lost something dear to your heart.
I am extremely fortunate that the company I work for allowed me to travel home for Danielle’s memorial service. There were so many people there to pay their respects and support her family. There was a large picture of Danielle in the front by the podium. It was her graduation picture from Maine Maritime. It was probably one of the happiest moments of her life - all she had ever wanted to do was sail the seas. I like to think she’ll be doing that forever now.
The maritime industry is no stranger to disaster and tragedy. Sadly, that’s when policies and regulations get put into place – after something terrible happens. I personally have known four people who have died while at work on the water. Two of them, including Danielle, were casualties or accidents (the other two were illness and suicide). We survivors are left to ask “How could this even happen?” and “How can we prevent this in the future?” and “What if that had been me?” But the reason Danielle stands out among this group to me is because she was a woman. For some strange reason, I almost never expected a woman to die at sea. Of course, Danielle isn’t the first one, nor will she be the last. Women will die at sea, because there are more of them going to sea every day. But again, for some reason, this time it feels different. I keep thinking it’s because of the fact that now she won’t be able to tell her kids sea stories, or because she’ll never get married, but that’s true of any young person gone too soon.
One of the things I remember very vividly from the time around the loss of the El Faro was receiving a phone call from my father. He has always been supportive of my decision to work in a dangerous environment, while also being protective of his “baby girl.” He called me right before I was scheduled to go on watch, and I stepped out on the bridge wing to take the call. The sadness and fear and straight-up exasperation in his voice was something I had never heard before. He’s the type of person who conceals his negative emotions for the sake of others, but that day he couldn’t hold back; because every time he saw Danielle’s face on the news, he also saw mine.
It has slowly dawned on me as to why I feel so strongly about the loss of Danielle. It’s because for the first time, maritime tragedy hit very, very close to home. I like to think that I am just like Danielle: a strong and tough and exceptional woman. And yet, the sea took her. That could have been me out there, as it could have been any of us. For the first time, I suddenly felt very vulnerable. I went through a period of self-doubt. If the years of experience and toughness of the crew of the El Faro wasn’t enough to save them, what’s stopping the angry sea from swallowing me whole, too?
Survivor’s guilt seems to be common to the maritime industry as well. We’ve all had our close calls, our emergency situations, we all read the NTSB report after a maritime casualty. We ask ourselves what we can do to prevent things like this from happening in the future. We think about the people lost on the water who, due to one small mistake, will never set foot on dry land again. We often think “that could have been me.” It is vastly important to learn from the mistakes made by others in this industry.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to the tapes from the NTSB reports and investigations on the El Faro. I know there are recordings of the ship’s final moments – the captain calling the Coast Guard on the radio asking for help, and I know you can hear Danielle’s voice in the background amid the pandemonium. I’m not ready for that.
That’s the thing about death in general, isn’t it? We all grieve differently, we all feel differently about the loss, and none of us is right or wrong. I still don’t know why this time it feels different, but it certainly does. Maybe it’s because seafarers are traditionally men; we’re more accustomed to seeing memorials for the loss of men at sea - not women at sea. But like Danielle, I am also a woman at sea, and I would never want my friends and family to go through what we all experienced from the loss of the El Faro. I’ll miss Danielle for the rest of my life, but I am grateful for the time I did get to spend with her.
I’m sorry for your loss.
There it was again, as I returned to work from Danielle’s memorial. I turned to the person who’d said it and thanked them for their kindness. But in my mind, I thought “this isn’t just my loss. This is your loss, and her family’s loss, and her friends’ loss. It’s everyone’s loss.” It’s mine because I have lost a dear friend and confidant. It’s her family’s because they no longer have a daughter and a sister. And so many others lost a dear friend. It’s yours because now you will never get the chance to meet her and know her like I did. So I, too, am sorry for your loss.