El Faro cargo ship was expected to make Tacoma-Alaska run this winter

The cargo ship believed sunk this month by Hurricane Joaquin was expected to return to Tacoma this fall after serving as a lifeline to Puerto Rico for the past nine years.

The El Faro was going to relieve a Tacoma ship being sent out for liquefied natural-gas conversion this winter, said John Parrott, president of Federal Way-based TOTE Maritime Alaska, a subsidiary of TOTE Inc. Another subsidiary, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, owns the El Faro.

The vessel’s relationship to Washington State dates back to 1991, when Seattle-based Saltchuk Resources — the parent company of TOTE — bought the ship to service Alaska.

It originally was christened the Puerto Rico, and renamed it the Northern Lights.

Under that moniker, it sailed a regular Tacoma-to-Anchorage route and was chartered by the U.S. military in 2003 to ferry a dozen marines and a load of supplies to Kuwait.

The ship was sent to Puerto Rico in 2006 and renamed again as the El Faro.

The ship, on a course from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been missing since Oct. 1 as it sailed through the Bahamas at the height of the storm, which had winds of 140 mph and waves topping 50 feet.

The Associated Press reported that the captain of the 790-foot ship, carrying 33 people, planned to bypass the hurricane, but a mechanical failure left the container ship adrift in the storm’s path.

The Coast Guard has concluded the ship sank near the Bahamas. An unidentified body in a survival suit was found. The Coast Guard suspended the search for survivors Wednesday after covering more than 172,000 square miles.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said it will try to retrieve the data recorder from the ship, estimated to be 15,000 feet down. The agency sent a team to Jacksonville on Tuesday to begin the agency’s inquiry.

“We will be looking at everything,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, NTSB vice chairman. “So, we leave no stone unturned in our investigation and our analysis. We want to find every bit of information that we possibly can.”

In addition to the voyage data recorder — which begins pinging when it gets wet and has a 30-day battery life — the board will focus on communications between the captain and the vessel’s owner.

The AP reported the El Faro had no history of engine failure and the company said the vessel was modernized in 1992 and 2006. Coast Guard records show it underwent its last inspection in March.

Saltchuk is one of the largest private companies in Washington, with more than $2 billion in assets, nearly $3 billion in annual revenue and 7,730 employees within its six different business lines: air cargo, domestic and international shipping and logistics, marine services, petroleum distribution and trucking.

Seattle native Mike Garvey co-founded Saltchuk in 1982 with a group of seven other investors to acquire Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a domestic ocean-liner service to Alaska that had been operating since 1975.

Foss Maritime is part of the corporate group.

Garvey became majority shareholder and chairman of Saltchuk in 1993 and retired in 2007. His sons-in-law Mark Tabbutt and Timothy Engle are now chairman and president, respectively.

In 2009, Garvey’s three daughters stepped into the role of majority owners of the company.

Garvey, now 77, said he never could have imagined a situation as bad as the El Faro’s disappearance during a hurricane.

“If I had made a list of the risks that we had in the company, that would have been on the bottom,” he said. “I never would have guessed. It is a horrible, horrible tragedy.”

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