Beginning on Feb. 15, an investigative panel heard testimonies from 27 witnesses over the course of two weeks, discussing the events leading up to the tragic loss of the El Faro, which claimed the lives of 33 mariners including 17 SIU members.
The panel, consisting of National Transportation Safety Board and United States Coast Guard (USCG) representatives, shed new light on the accident. The hearings opened with a 33-second moment of silence – one second for every person who died when El Faro sank north of the Bahamas on Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin. Family members of the lost mariners attended every day of the hearing, as did SIU Assistant Vice President Archie Ware.
“It’s been pretty difficult to hear some of the testimony, pretty trying,” said Robert Green, the father of the El Faro’s Chief Cook LaShawn Rivera, an SIU member. “We’re thankful that the hearings are going on, that they are very in-depth, that the Coast Guard and NTSB are asking the questions they are asking.”
Many topics were covered by the witnesses, including the ship’s maintenance and inspection records, the autonomy afforded to captains working for operator TOTE Maritime, as well as the capability and skills of the El Faro’s captain, Michael Davidson. He was repeatedly praised for his long years of service to the operator; witness after witness described him as a meticulous, committed professional.
TOTE Services President Philip Greene called Davidson “eminently qualified,” while Earl Loftfield, captain of the El Faro’s sister ship El Yunque, said that Davidson “seemed very solid” and understood the challenges of being a captain.
According to TOTE Services Port Engineer Tim Neeson, who had dinner with Davidson prior to the El Faro’s departure, both men discussed the then-tropical storm brewing in the Bahamas, and neither believed it posed a threat to the vessel. He also revealed that Davidson had reported the fully developed hurricane in his daily report the day before the vessel sank.
That report had been logged by TOTE and the USCG, but it was stated that the Coast Guard did not believe the El Faro was in danger of sinking, although the vessel had already lost propulsion and had begun taking on water. According to the testimony of USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Chancery, the agency believed that the ship was disabled, but that the crew would be able to pump out the water coming into the vessel.
It was later reported that an inspection conducted on the boilers of the ship found parts that had “deteriorated severely” or needed to be replaced, but both company and independent engineers believed it was still safe enough to set sail.
“There aren’t any showstoppers in here,” said John Fisker-Andersen, director of ship management for TOTE Services Inc., referring to the inspection findings. “There’s nothing in here as explained to me that’s a ‘no sail.’”
The 790-foot vessel’s boilers were scheduled for service a month after its ill-fated voyage. Inspectors had found deterioration in parts called “burner throats,” pieces of the main propulsion steam boiler that help shape the boiler’s flame and properly mix fuel and air. Fisker-Andersen described the issues as an indication of normal wear and tear.
A former chief engineer on the El Faro, James Robinson, was also called upon to testify on the condition of the vessel’s boilers and propulsion systems. Robinson testified that he doesn’t believe a loss of propulsion would have been related to boilers. Instead, he said that would have been an issue with the ship’s turbine.
“From the loss of a turbine, as a consequence or potential casualty based on your experience as a chief engineer can you explain how difficult it would be to restore propulsion to the vessel?” asked Keith Fawcett, investigation board member.
“You lose your turbine, you’re done. You’re not going to get propulsion back,” Robinson said.
In a separate testimony, USCG Capt. Kyle McAvoy said his staff was “within days” of releasing a list of vessels to watch for problems that included the El Faro. This so-called “watch list,” which is generated from a matrix that scored ships on factors that included age and known problems, was not published before the ship went down.
During the hearing, board members also questioned Coast Guard administrators about the agency’s program allowing plans for shipbuilding and modifications to be inspected on the agency’s behalf by private groups that have negotiated agreements with the government. Members were told more than 90 percent of that “third-party” reviewing is done by the American Bureau of Shipping, which assesses thousands of plans every year, according to Capt. John Mauger, commander of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center.
Additionally, it came to light that the battery which powers the voyage data recorder (VDR) may have expired in May of 2015. An inspection report from December 2014 stated the battery would last until the following May, and John Fletcher, global service manager for recorder marketer Northrop Grumman Sperry Marine, said he could not say for sure whether the battery had been replaced.
The Coast Guard indicated the two weeks of hearings went a long way to helping them decide what recommendations should be made. A second round of hearings has been announced, but dates haven’t been established. Their timing will depend in part on whether the NTSB finds the El Faro’s data recorder, but published reports said the next hearings probably will happen sometime between May and July.