Lewes friends heartbroken over El Faro news

The El Faro was lost at sea during Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas on Oct. 1. (TOTES Maritime photo)

The El Faro was lost at sea during Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas on Oct. 1. (TOTES Maritime photo)

LEWES — Sometimes, news of the world hits closer to home than we expect.

George Nason, of Lewes, was following news of the El Faro, a cargo ship that went down near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin.

He had no idea that an old friend was aboard until a few days after the ship’s demise was first reported.

“Prayers for the safe return of Mariette Wright and her shipmates,” Mr. Nason posted on a U.S. Merchant Marines Facebook page. “Mariette serves as Able Bodied Seaman aboard the missing cargo ship El Faro. Mariette is a shipmate, she was an AB at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

From the Editor logo copy copy“She’s ‘CMLF Family.’”

The maritime community is small, said Mr. Nason, a retired Cape May-Lewes Ferry pilot.

“Everybody knows somebody connected to this thing,” he said.

Ms. Wright, who served on the ferry from 2001-2006, was one of the 33 crew members of the El Faro missing.

“It brings me to tears,” said George Gadsby, a retired captain of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

Her friends are heartbroken.

“I just can’t imagine the horror,” said Patty LaValley, a ferry co-worker. “Just the sheer horror of going down. My heart just breaks for all of them. I just don’t understand they were where they were there.”

As it passed near the center of Hurricane Joaquin, the El Faro sank into about 15,000 feet of water Thursday, Oct. 1, off Crooked Island in the Bahamas, the Coast Guard said. The ship apparently lost power and was leaning at 15 degrees, taking on water and the beating of 140 mph winds and seas near 50 feet.

Searchers found remains of a yet-to-be-identified crew member floating in the waters and a life raft.

The Coast Guard called off the search for survivors on Wednesday. The Navy will soon launch an effort to find the 790-foot ship on the sea floor.

“I’m still hoping they might find a lifeboat tucked away somewhere with some people on it,” said Ms. LaValley Friday during a phone interview. “My heart breaks for all the families.”

***

Ms. Wright, 51, was not a native Delawarean but she called Trap Pond, near Laurel, her home while she worked for the ferry.

Mariette Wright

Mariette Wright

Originally of Massachusetts, she had a storied maritime career, going out on the ocean at just 18.

She ran an excursion boat out of Boston Harbor, worked on a passenger ship, and served in the civilian Military Sealift Command before joining the

Cape May-Lewes Ferry team in 2001.

After the ferry work, she joined a cruise line that went to Hawaii, and then found her way back to the East Coast with a Seafarers International Union job in Baltimore in 2007.

Ms. LaValley said Ms. Wright once told her about how she delivered mail on a bicycle in New York City many years ago.

“She’s always been kind of a vagabond, flittering here and there,” said Ms. LaValley.

Her ferry colleagues had lost touch with her in recent years.

But what they remember most is that she was a free spirit, an adventurer and caring friend.

Ms. LaValley talked about how Ms. Wright introduced her daughter to sushi.

Ms. Wright, her friend said, was taking online courses some years ago to become a teacher and tried her hand a growing herbs at her Laurel home.

Mr. Gadsby said he worked side-by-side with Ms. Wright for years. She would serve as his helmsman twice a day on the trips back and forth across the Delaware Bay. He said he enjoyed hearing tales about her black and white border collie Hobo, her pride and joy.

“As the years went on, we became familiar, knowing what was going on with families and the kids and the dogs,” he said.

***

Ms. Wright’s class was “able-bodied seaman.”

Mr. Gadsby and Mr. Nason described it as any sort of non-officer job on the ship.

She might serve as helmsman or have maintenance, lookout or mooring responsibilities.

Her friend Ms. LaValley was in the same position.

The two first met on Ms. Wright’s first day on the job.

“She started on Sept. 11, 2001, the day you can never forget,” said Ms. LaValley.

Prior to her ferry work, Ms. LaValley spent 17 years working on an oil tanker for Sun Oil.

She’s no stranger to sailing in bad weather. She was on the “Tropic Sun” making a trip from the Delaware Bay to Puerto Rico during 1991’s Perfect Storm — when Hurricane Grace and a nor’easter merged — off the Mid-Atlantic Coast.

Her first trip, she said, was out of Houston and she soon learned they were going out to sea to outrun a hurricane. She described the green water cascading over the “flying bridge” (top area of this ship) under 90-foot waves.

“You don’t know the force of water until you see it bend steel into a pretzel,” she said.

Mr. Nason said he has seen bad conditions around the world since his first trips in the 1970s, and occasionally will spot a cargo ship coming up the Delaware Bay with signs of a challenging trip.

“You might see there are containers smashed up and some even hanging off the side, being held by one wire,” he said. “You know she got beat up in the North Atlantic,”

Those watching this news closely have lots of questions.

Mr. Gadsby said he wants to believe that it was a mechanical issue that led to the El Faro’s demise.

“Did they even get the lifeboats in the water? There are so many questions,” said Ms. LaValley. “What were they doing there to begin with?

“I just don’t know, why would you go right into a hurricane? One officer, the second mate, had texted Mom that they were going into it, not that they lost power. That does not make sense to me.

“Will we ever know? Did the office give them an order to get there? Did they think they could outrun the hurricane?”

Ms. Wright’s mother, Mary Shevory, has done her best to share her daughter’s stories on newscasts in Florida and national television.

She said her daughter was full of adventure and not at all afraid of the hard and courageous work it takes.

“She loves the sea,” Ms. Shevory told News4Jax. “She couldn’t live without being on the sea somehow or somewhere. And that is her life, and now I’m so afraid she’s lost it to the sea.”

***

Among the missing 33 crew members is Jeremie Riehm, age 43, whose hometown was listed as Camden, Delaware, by the Coast Guard and TOTE Maritime.

So far, the Delaware State News has not confirmed his connection to the area. Readers are encouraged to share information with us.

His family, according to Florida news reports, lives in Bokeelia, Florida, near Fort Myers.

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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