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El Faro widow opens up about her husband Keith Griffin and their twin girls

Griffin died on ship during Hurricane Joaquin
El Faro widow talks about husband, tragedy
El Faro widow talks about husband, tragedy
Posted at 10:00 PM, Nov 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-08 22:44:33-05

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A Southwest Florida widow is sharing for the first time what she was going through after her husband disappeared at sea during a hurricane in 2015.  She was 5 months pregnant with twins when the El Faro went missing.

Fox 4 sat down with Katie Griffin to find out what life is like, two years and two children later.

Doubling up the baby bottles is just part of the routine for this mom of 20-month old twins.  “Eat, play, eat, play…get ‘em up and repeat all over again.”

Little Harper and Isla keep her busy.   But when she looks at their sweet faces, she can't help but see her husband Keith.  “Facial features, especially harper, but their attitudes, actions, just the funniness in Isla.  There's so much of him in both of them.”

The girls came into the world surrounded by love, embraced by their mom and grandmothers.  But one very important person was missing: their dad Keith.  “It was hard not having him there.”

In late September 2015, just four months before the girls were born, Keith was preparing to head out to sea as an engineer on the cargo ship El Faro.  The ship's route would take it from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico as Hurricane Joaquin was gaining strength.

But Katie wasn't concerned, since her husband's ships had navigated around storms in the past.  “I assumed this would be the same, you'd go around because that's what he said you do.”

But she still didn't want Keith to go for another reason: sickness related to her pregnancy. 

She called him in Jacksonville. “I had begged him to come home.  I just said ‘please, just come home.  I'm just so sick.  I can't do this.  I need your help.”

But Keith's help was also needed aboard the El Faro. He had to stay, and reminded her how much he loved her.

“The next morning, normal he would text me or email.  I got nothing, so I was mad,” says Katie.  “Then I got a phone call from a Jacksonville area code, so I picked up the phone and that's when they told me that they haven't located Keith's ship, that they lost communication at 7am.  It was just horrible.”

For days, U.S. Coast Guard crews searched for survivors as Katie continued to check with them.  “I kept waiting and waiting.  I couldn't sleep.  I’d call like every two hours and they just couldn't find his ship.”

It wasn't until 30 days later the El Faro was found using sonar.  It was 15,000 feet underwater.

The ship’s black box was recovered from the ocean floor, and revealed the chilling audio of the final moments on the ship.

The transcripts were shared with the crew member’s families.  Katie remembers reading the last words to the captain from a terrified crew member who didn't want to abandon ship as it was sinking.

“He was saying ‘don't leave me, I'm going to die.’ And the captain said ‘you're not going to die. I'm going to help you.  Come with me.  You have to come with me.’  And then it went down…yeah, that was hard to read.”

The Coast Guard's final report says Captain Michael Davison “misjudged the path of Hurricane Joaquin and overestimated the vessel's heavy weather survivability."

The report says if Davison and the company that owned the ship, TOTE Marite, Inc., had just  "changed the route", Keith and the 32 others on board likely would've lived

Knowing it was completely preventable made Katie angry at first, but two years later she just wants peace.  “I don't want to have that anger in me ‘cause I have two little girls.  I can't be an angry person all my life, so I just kind of accepted it.  It was a mistake, and unfortunately it cost everyone aboard their lives.”

And cost their girls a father they will never know in person. 

But she's determined to keep his legacy alive, starting with his name. “Both of their middle names is Keith.  So there's Harper Keith and Isla Keith, which Isla off the Bahamian islands, Keith's final resting place.”

Forever at sea, and forever in Katie's heart as she does her best to make him proud.  “Kind of try to instill the things that him and I talked about.  The way we were going to parent, just do my best with them.”

We asked Katie what's next for her, and for now she's just focusing staying at home and raising Harper and Isla.  She is hoping to head to Washington in December, when the NTSB will determine why it believes the E Faro ultimately sank two years ago.

Of the 33 people on board the ship when it went down, four of the men were from Lee County.   In addition to Keith form Fort Myers, Howard Schoenly and Steven Shults were both from Cape Coral, and Jeremy Riehm lived in Bokeelia.