(CN) - The families of two crew members who died on a cargo ship that sank as Hurricane Joaquin lashed the Bahamas in early October claim their loved ones' employers allowed the vessel to sail into the teeth of the storm.
Hurricane Joaquin, the tenth named storm of the 2015 Atlantic Hurricane Season, began to form on September 28 and became a Category 3 major hurricane on October 1. During most of this time, the hurricane essentially meandered in the Bahamas before being picked up by a strong front and being carried into the North Atlantic.
On the morning of October 1, an American cargo ship, El Faro, was sailing near Crooked Island in the Bahamas when its captain reported it had lost propulsion and was beginning to list. At the time, investigators believe, the ship was only 20 miles from the hurricane's eye.
That radioed report was the last anyone heard from the El Faro and its 33-member crew, and multi-day search by both Hurricane Hunter aircraft and the U.S. Coast Guard turned up only a lifebuoy and an oil slick that searchers never conclusively linked to the missing vessel.
Since then, a single body has been recovered.
In a pair of complaints filed in the Duval County Fla. circuit court, the families of crew members Lonnie Jordan and Jeremie Riehm say their loved ones presumably died when the vessel disappeared.
Joanna Johnson filed her wrongful death suit on behalf of Jordan, her son. Soon after, Tina Riehm filed a similar suit on behalf of her husband Jeremie, who worked as third mate on the ship.
Both blame TOTE Services and TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, for whom the crew was transporting cargo between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico, for the crew members' deaths..
Johnson's suit also names Michael Davidson, the captain of the El Faro, for negligence in piloting the vessel. Davidson, however, is also presumed lost at sea.
"TOTE Services negligently permitted the El Faro to sail out to sea despite being in an unseaworthy condition to handle the conditions of a violent storm," Johnson's complaint says.
According to both complaints, TOTE Maritime knew about the storm, its intensifying strength and probable direction.
"At approximately 10 a.m. [on September 30], Captain Davidson sent an e-mail to TOTE indicating he understood the weather conditions in his intended path and suggesting that he had a plan to try and outrun the approaching hurricane," Riehm's complaint says. "At that time, Captain Davidson, still north of the Bahamas and hundreds of miles from the approaching storm, had at least three safe alternatives: slow down to assess the weather, turn around and head away from the storm, or change course and head towards Florida. Instead, the El Faro continued straight towards the intensifying hurricane."
In the early morning hours of October 1, the El Faro encountered 140 mph winds and 50-foot waves. The ship lost propulsion and slowly capsized.
The El Faro was headed to Puerto Rico.
The suits also allege the 40-year-old El Faro was not seaworthy at the time of departure from Jacksonville's port.
TOTE Maritime spokesman Michael Hanson declined to comment on pending litigation, but said the company's "focus remains on support and care for the families and their loved ones."
Tina Riehm is represented by Stephen Pajcic III of Pajcic & Pajcic PA. Willie Gary of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson PL is representing Joanna Johnson.
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