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Coast Guard set to hold hearings into sinking of cargo ship El Faro

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Coast Guard will begin holding hearings Tuesday to determine why the cargo ship El Faro sank near Bermuda during Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 crew members.

The U.S. flagged vessel was loaded with hundreds of containers and vehicles on its way from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when it lost propulsion, began leaning at a 15 degree angle and taking on water. The ship lost contact with emergency officials ashore at 7:20 a.m. Oct. 1.

Victims' family members have said in court documents the 1970s-era ship wasn't seaworthy and the ship's captain negligently guided the ship into the path of an oncoming storm in an effort to make a delivery on time and save money on fuel. The ship was scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico at 5 a.m. Oct. 2.

The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation is holding hearings in Jacksonville to identify whether there was any misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law by any licensed or certificated person. The Coast Guard could turn over evidence to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, and it could also seek various civil penalties. New regulations could also be proposed as a result of what the Coast Guard learns.

TOTE Maritime, the ship's operator, said it welcomed the review.

"Our goal throughout the process has been to learn everything possible about the tragic loss of our crew and vessel," company spokesman Mike Hansen said in an email. "We welcome any safety related advice from these investigations that benefits all seafarers, there is no more important legacy for our employees and their families."

Family members are hoping the Coast Guard's investigation will provide some answers.

"I think there are questions that are swirling around in everyone's mind," said Robert Green, the father of the El Faro's 32-year-old chief cook, LaShawn Rivera. "I plan to be there every day."

Rivera lived in Jacksonville, but frequently drove up to Chesapeake, where he was engaged to Vana Jules. Rivera and Jules have a daughter, Tatiana, who was born about a month after Rivera disappeared, and a 1-year old son, Yael.

"He was home every week. Whenever he could take time off, he would spend time with them," Green said. "That was his life – what he did for a living and his family."

Green started an organization in Jacksonville, where he's a pastor, called Mending A Heart. The organization is raising money to conduct a search for the crew's remains and also provide therapy and other support services to the victims' families.

"You're trying not to let this go unnoticed – 33 people, 28 Americans, five Polish just disappeared from the face of the Earth," he said.

After Coast Guard officials in Portsmouth were alerted to the El Faro's predicament, an extensive search and rescue effort was launched. The search involved Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard assets, including the Portsmouth-based cutter Northland. The Northland spent 167 hours searching for the crew, the most of any Coast Guard vessel.

The search was called off Oct. 7 after crews searched more than 183,000 square nautical miles. They found one deceased mariner in a survival suit, a heavily damaged life boat, life jackets and various other items from the ship.

Some friends and family members of the crew signed petitions on Change.org at the time requesting the search continue, including those of 34-year-old Virginia Beach resident Richard Pusatere, who was the ship's chief engineer and the married father of a young daughter.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Alana Ingram said the decision to suspend the search was made for a variety of reasons.

"We base our decisions on the science of search and rescue using sophisticated computer modeling software that calculates numerous variables like wind, current, drift, waves, water temperature to generate search areas with the greatest probability for successfully finding people in distress," she wrote in an email. "The Coast Guard saturates those search areas with the maximum number of assets and crew effort, and it’s only after all those efforts are exhausted do we carefully consider all available information to determine whether we continue a search."

The 790-foot ship was found Oct. 31 after a team aboard the Virginia Beach-based fleet ocean tug USNS Apache spotted the El Faro in about 15,000 feet of water using a remote operated vehicle. Video of the wreckage showed the navigation bridge structure and the deck below had separated from the ship.

National Transportation Safety Board officials announced last week they would launch another search for the ship's voyage data recorder, which can record conversations and sounds on the navigation bridge that could help investigators understand what happened before the vessel sank. The Coast Guard hearings will help in conjunction with the NTSB, although each organization will produce its own investigative report.

TOTE Maritime settled with the families of 10 victims, including Pusatere's, paying each $500,000. Miami-based attorney John Hickey, who represented the Pusatere family, declined to comment on the settlement.

The ship's captain, Michael Davidson, had emailed a company official the day before the ship sank saying he intended to go south of the storm's predicted path, with a goal of passing it about 65 miles from its center, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. As the El Faro approached the wall of the eye of the hurricane, the National Hurricane Center predicted seas of 30 feet with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour that would reach 121 miles per hour.

The morning of Oct. 1, the captain called the company's emergency call center and said he had a marine emergency – there was a hull breach, a scuttle had blown open and there was water in a hold. The ship had lost its main propulsion unit and the engineers couldn't get it going. The captain estimated the ship was in 10 to 12 foot seas.

The crew was never heard from again.

©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
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