Terence Smith talks with Jim Carrier, author of "The Ship and the Storm," an investigation into the apparent disappearance of a passenger ship caught in the eye of Hurricane Mitch.
TERENCE SMITH: In October 1998, "Fantome," a four-masted windjammer schooner cruising the western Caribbean, set out to sea in a risky attempt to avoid the fiercest storm in 200 years, Hurricane Mitch. "Fantome's" battle for survival is recounted in a new book, "The Ship and the Storm." Its author, Jim Carrier, joins us now.
Jim, welcome. Tell us about the "Fantome" what happened to it.
JIM CARRIER: Well, the "Fantome" in its day, launched in 1927, was the most sumptuous private yacht in the world, launched by the duke of Westminster in Italy, and it went through a succession of wealthy owners, and eventually, after many years of laying fallow, was found by the owner of Windjammer Barefoot Cruise Liners, Mike Burke, and gutted and converted into a cruise ship that puttered around among the Caribbean, carrying people in this wonderfully romantic scene of rum and sun.
TERENCE SMITH: And all went well until October of 1998.
JIM CARRIER: The boat was doing its summer routine in the Bay Islands of Honduras, and it would go to Belize one week and the Bay Islands the rest, and what happened was that that week, a tropical storm, a low-pressure area, developed over Africa, as they do every four or five days, and came at it at about the speed of a school bus.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm.
JIM CARRIER: And it caught it. It developed into Hurricane Mitch some days later, and ultimately what happened, after a chase, and letting passengers off in Belize, the ship actually hit the eye wall and disappeared with 31 men aboard.
TERENCE SMITH: And it's gone. It's not been found?
JIM CARRIER: Disappeared entirely. There are pieces of the boat on the islands down there, but there's no sign of crew lifejackets. There were a couple of life rafts that popped open, but it's very much of a mystery. It's probably in about 4,000 feet of water.
TERENCE SMITH: And this is a great, huge ship, and a steel-hulled ship?
JIM CARRIER: It's as long as a football field, and 120 12-story masts, and... but at the end, you know, it was weaving like willows, 45 degrees one side and the other. It must have been a terrifying end.
TERENCE SMITH: You describe the crew and the captain as being a really experienced, savvy lot.
JIM CARRIER: Guy M. March, who was the young captain, 32 years old, was a British-born captain who had spent his entire career with windjammer ships, and he was really the golden boy of the company, and... which was, you know, meant that he was good at public relations, but he was also really an intuitive sailor. He could feel the wind, where it was coming from, and he did as well as anybody parking this big old lug of a boat that most other captains said sailed like a pig. The rest of the crew were largely Caribbean West Indian men who were there because it was the best opportunity for them in their area. These were men who left their countries. They were paid very poorly, typically anywhere from $125 to maybe $800 a month, plus room and board, but they were experienced and very delightful men, full of fun, and really made these cruises what people came back for.
TERENCE SMITH: What explains to you this experienced captain, this experienced crew, why weren't they able to elude this storm?
JIM CARRIER: Well, for one thing, Hurricane Mitch was a very unusual storm. It actually mystified the people at the National Hurricane Center, who were constantly wrong on how big the storm was going to be and where it was going to go, and so their forecasts were flatly wrong, and at the very least, the young captain and his boss in Miami were hoping that the forecast would be just right. I think, though, that there were a lot of other things weighing on this young man. For one thing, the timing couldn't have been worse. The storm became a hurricane on a Saturday. It went from a category one to a category four storm in 24 hours, and several hours later, 125 people from the United States were arriving in Honduras to board this boat for what they thought would be a wonderful vacation, and I think the captain was cornered, really, between keeping people happy and keeping a weather eye out for this hurricane.
TERENCE SMITH: So he put them on board for a while, and then was forced to let them off.
JIM CARRIER: The most... the biggest mystery, I think, in terms of what was going on in his mind-- and of course I wasn't able to talk with him-- was why, after the storm became a category four hurricane and was coming directly at him, at anchor, why he took the passengers on. They actually boarded in terrific rain gusts and heavy winds and heavy rains, the launch bouncing up and down, people wearing these black plastic bags to try to stay dry. They were drenched. Once they were aboard, I think he was a little reluctant to call off the cruise, but the decision he did make was that he decided to go a hundred miles North to Belize, charter a plane for the crew, get them off, and he did that safely, and then he had to turn around and decide really what to do with the ship and the rest of the crew.
TERENCE SMITH: Now this ship, which was uninsured, was the flagship of the line, and was a big money-maker for the company. Was that a factor in the decision-making?
JIM CARRIER: Well, the company denies that it was a factor. They would make probably $100,000, maybe $400,000... it was somewhere between $100,000 and $400,000 a week on this ship, and they say that they were willing to give that up, but I think there was always, especially with passengers coming, already in the air, they were, they were... it had to be a factor, I think, in their thinking, and I think what happened ultimately was they waited too long to make the decision to do something with the ship and the passengers.
TERENCE SMITH: Like Sebastian Junger in "The Perfect Storm," you reconstructed this story after the fact, and you use something you call forensic journalism to do it. What does that mean?
JIM CARRIER: Well, to me it was very much like a forensic pathologist going about his work. I didn't know the "Fantome," and Hurricane Mitch was long gone, and so I had to recreate it from databases and interviews with people, but I literally went to Honduras and walked the shores of these little islands, where the hurricane wall laid over it for days on end, and picked up pieces of the boat that were there-- little shards of wood from the deck, the bridge where the captain was in its last moments-- and I tried to piece it back together, based on the things that were found, what people said and did, his last communications, and so I was able to... you know, what I basically did with this book was try to think of the storm and the ship as two main characters.
TERENCE SMITH: Intersecting.
JIM CARRIER: Intersecting there on that Tuesday afternoon, and the people who were in those storms were... their stories were what brought these two characters alive.
TERENCE SMITH: Does... and then you also have the pictures, the images, and the reports from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, including that extraordinary picture of Hurricane Mitch, which was one of the most destructive ever.
JIM CARRIER: You know, people view hurricanes in a much different fashion depending on where they are. If you're lying on the ground, if you're in a boat at sea, and if you're in the National Hurricane Center looking at that, those guys... This was really a pin-up storm for them. It was a beautiful, beautiful storm, had a perfect eye, and when it became the fourth- strongest hurricane, you know, they began printing out color pictures and putting them on the walls of their office, but they couldn't really tell what it was doing, and they really were quite wrong in their forecasts.
TERENCE SMITH: This story exists, doesn't it, on several different levels? I mean, it's human, it's nature, it shows science against bravery and maybe common sense?
JIM CARRIER: Well, one of the storylines, I think, is the first- world/third-world aspect of it. Windjammer barefoot cruise ship, as popular as it is, it's a niche market, and it operates really in third-world countries that don't have any regulations for cruise lines. They didn't have to pay the men very much, and so a lot of these men when they died were offered, their families were offered $12,000, $30,000 for settlements. That's one story. Another story, I think, is this whole sense of science versus common sense. I think with satellites now, we have... we believe that we know where these storms are going to go, because you can see them. But in fact they didn't in this case, and I think... I've always felt that if this young captain had not had a satellite phone to which to call his boss, he might have just looked at the black bar out there, and looked at the waves rolling in on the ship, and said, "enough-- I'm not going out to sea."
TERENCE SMITH: But sadly he did not. Jim Carrier, thanks very much.
JIM CARRIER: Thank you.