Coast Guard report on El Faro sinking to be released on 2nd anniversary of disaster
By STEVE PATTERSON | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 30, 2017
The U.S. Coast Guard will release a final report Sunday on the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro on the second anniversary of the deaths of 33 mariners.
The report from the agency’s marine board of investigation will outline reasons the ship sank in the grip of Hurricane Joaquin and lessons to prevent other deaths.
“The most important thing to remember is that 33 people lost their lives in this tragedy,” said Capt. Jason Neubauer, the board’s chairman. If they’re adopted, he said, the report’s recommendations can improve safety at sea.
El Faro was traveling from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on a weekly trip that ferried cargo containers stuffed with everything from grocery items to car parts.
The work wasn’t glamorous, but the days since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico have shown how important a commercial lifeline can be between the island and the U.S. mainland, said Pastor Robert L. Green, whose son, LaShawn Rivera, was El Faro’s chief cook.
The ship disappeared near the Bahamas after reporting it had lost propulsion and was listing, with some seawater flowing in.
A distress signal from the 40-year-old ship didn’t include a GPS location, and it stopped transmitting after 24 minutes instead of repeating for 48 hours as those signals do normally.
The ship was finally found weeks later, about three miles under the sea, resting upright but separated from two upper decks that were a half-mile away.
Months of additional work led to searchers from the Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board and others recovering a data recorder that preserved information including 26 hours of conversations picked up by shipboard microphones.
Neubauer later said he listened to all of the recordings, which ranged from talk about safety meetings and the disaster-at-sea book “The Perfect Storm” to El Faro Captain Michael Davidson’s exchanges with a terrified crew member Davidson promised he wouldn’t leave, even though the ship was sinking.
The Coast Guard’s findings almost definitely won’t be simple.
The panel that produced the report held three two-week rounds of public hearings in Jacksonville to gather information from witnesses and experts in technical fields and the Coast Guard oversaw a series of studies to analyze subjects like the ship’s condition on its last voyage and factors affecting ship stability.
A naval architect involved in that research told the panel during hearings in February that the ship seemed then to have been unable to handle multiple sources of flooding and vulnerable to floodwater moving inside its hull.
The architect spelled out a “plausible sequence” for disaster that could have progressed from flooding in the ship’s No. 3 compartment to water penetrating through vents to another compartment, then to the ship partially capsizing and containers lashed on the deck breaking loose while sinking continued.
At one point in February, hearing discussions moved to chances for “catastrophic failure” if cold ocean water poured into the hot engine room.
Neubauer said at the time that wreckage photos seemed to show the area of the ship above the engine room and boiler were missing.
But the Coast Guard hasn’t focused only on the mechanics of the ship’s loss.
During the hearings, investigators also asked about subjects including an “alternative compliance” process for ensuring seaworthiness of older ships like El Faro; about how cargo was secured and consequences if it broke loose; about whether the crew and officers got the rest they needed to work well and make good decisions; and the open-air lifeboats that apparently weren’t launched even after Davidson gave the order to abandon ship.
In addition to the Coast Guard’s effort, the NTSB also has been reviewing the disaster, and has scheduled a Dec. 12 meeting to talk about causes of the sinking and its own set of recommendations to make seafaring safer. Both agencies were part of the hearings in Jacksonville.
Hours after the Coast Guard’s public release of its report, family and friends of the El Faro 33 will gather Sunday afternoon to remember them and to share with each other.
“We have a saying, ’never forgotten,’” Green said. “We should never forget the fact that these 33 lives were lost.”
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