by SCI President and Executive Director, the Rev. David M. Rider
Last Saturday, October 1 2016, marked the first anniversary of the tragic loss of 33 seafarers on the El Faro during Hurricane Joaquin. To observe the occasion, two commemorations took place in Jacksonville, Florida, the ship’s home base during its weekly runs to Puerto Rico.
In the morning, the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU) hosted a gathering of 400 family members of the crew, US Coast Guard officers who served them during the fateful week, and local industry representatives. The USCG Captain of the Port recalled the painful transition when search efforts ceased, stating that he remembers every moment of that week and thinks daily of the bereaved families with whom he bonded during daily briefings. With pain still fresh, everyone suggested that a year seemed like a blink of the eye. Many guests wore custom-made t-shirts dedicated to their loved one’s memory. The SIU dedicated a memorial tribute and welcomed all guests to a union-hall lunch.
On Saturday afternoon, members of the crew’s extended family were invited to a memorial dedication at a massively refurbished and renamed El Faro Memorial at Dames Point Park. A string quartet played beautiful music as 250 guests arrived along the waterfront of the St. John’s River and under the majestic Dames Bridge. TOTE CEO Anthony Chiarello welcomed guests and I acted as Master of Ceremonies, inviting several speakers. The ceremony culminated in the Reading of the Names with a bell's toll and moment of silence. Befitting the poignant nature of the anniversary, a talented 10-year-old boy played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. Artist Chad Light shared how the details of the bronze lighthouse memorial—El Faro means ‘lighthouse’ in Spanish—were fashioned by hand: these include the names of all the seafarers, and a beam which points southeast toward Puerto Rico. Eventually, a similar lighthouse will be installed in Puerto Rico, with its beam pointed toward Jacksonville.
Amid much hugging and sharing of stories, guests inspected the new memorial, took family photos and spoke with the artist. While the lighthouse provides the focal point and common witness for the site, 33 individually named bollards soon will be installed to honor each of the lost crew members. Appropriately, the site overlooks the active JAXPORT waterway, and we witnessed several ships passing by during our time at the park.
SCI has been honored to coordinate the El Faro Family Relief Fund over the past year, and has formed close bonds with families while we support them through this difficult time of transition. In December, SCI concludes the short-term support phase of the Fund and will disperse remaining funds early next year to so-called 529 college savings plans for surviving children, including a set of twins born just six months ago.