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Emotions run high as Coast Guard concludes final hearing into El Faro sinking

By SEBASTIAN KITCHEN | The Florida Times-Union (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 18, 2017

The final Coast Guard hearing into the El Faro sinking concluded Friday with emotional statements and vows from investigators to find answers to the tragedy that claimed 33 lives and disrupted the maritime industry.

“We all owe it to the El Faro 33 to learn what happened,” said Tim Nolan, president of ship operator Tote Maritime Puerto Rico. He said others will never truly know the pain of the family members, several of whom sat through every day of six weeks of hearings.

Nolan and William Bennett, attorney for the wife of El Faro captain Michael Davidson, cried reading statements on the final day of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the Oct. 1, 2015, sinking during Hurricane Joaquin.

Theresa Davidson, through her attorney, shared her condolences with the families and said she and her daughters and her husband’s parents and siblings known their pain.

Several people, in their closing statements, talked about the grace, dignity, dedication and selflessness of the family members.

Capt. Jason Neubauer, chairman of the marine board and chief of investigations for the Coast Guard, finished the hearing with 33 seconds of silence in memory of the crew while their names were displayed.

The day began with family members roping off and placing black ribbons on 33 seats in the meeting room to honor their lost loved ones. After the hearing they gathered in a circle to pray for current mariners and for changes to prevent a similar tragedy.

Neubauer said it was difficult to watch and listen as the family, friends and fellow crew members struggled to come to terms with the tragedy, but added it is “important for investigators to observe the emotional toll.”

Lead investigators with the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, which participated in the hearing, said seeing the family members and their dedication strengthened their resolve to finish the investigation and prevent future tragedies. Each agency will release a report with findings about the causes of the accident and recommendations for changes in the industry.

“I believe we have gathered the factual information necessary” for the investigation, Neubauer said, although he said the board would continue to accept and review any evidence.

Neubauer would not be specific, but expects what he said is one of the largest investigations in Coast Guard history to be a major factor in marine safety moving forward and to lead to changes.

“I definitely see recommendations coming as a result of this investigation,” he said.

Brian Young, lead investigator with the NTSB, said his team will do “everything in their power” to prevent another tragedy.

Gave up opportunity to fight for his life

Theresa Davidson, in her statement, pointed to testimony of her husband as a meticulous captain concerned with safety and the well-being of his crew. She pointed out the woeful forecasts of the National Weather Service in the days leading up to the El Faro’s loss of propulsion, leaving the 790-foot cargo ship helpless in the path of the hurricane.

She also referred to one of the most emotional moments in the entire ordeal, when Davidson at the end of audio recorded as the ship was sinking told a struggling crew member pleading for help he would not leave him.

Davidson willingly gave up the opportunity to fight for his own survival because he refused to leave a crewman, she wrote.

“Some are surprised Michael made that choice. I was not.”

She said that spoke to who “Michael was at his core.”

Neubauer said, “I think captain Davidson’s actions showed that he was committed to every crew member on that vessel and the voyage. … I thought it was heroic that he stayed to the end and tried to help his crew.”

There was mixed testimony about Davidson during the six weeks of hearings. Some also chastised Tote, which has settled wrongful deaths with 28 of the 33 estates.

26 hours of audio

The third hearing was the first since investigators recovered the ship’s voyage data recorder from the ocean floor three miles below the surface. Neubauer had said the investigation could be completed without the recorder, but he said Friday it is vital to the investigation with 26 hour of audio from crewmembers on the ship’s navigation bridge.

“It really tightened up on some of the facts we would have had to speculate on,” fills in gaps and helped produce several leads in the investigation, he said.

Neubauer listened to the entire 26 hours of audio “to gain better perspective of what happened.”

“For me, it was heartwrenching. Even on paper, the situation comes across. It’s emotional to watch the actions, the final actions by the crew. I do agree the crew tried as hard as they could. There was definitely heroic actions done to try to save other members and the ship itself. For me, it is something I will always think about.”

The captain said gathering evidence over 16 months has been challenging. Along with collecting thousands of pages of documents, the board interviewed dozens of witnesses and toured a sister ship, the El Yunque.

Taken for granted

Pastor Robert L. Green, father of El Faro chief cook LaShawn Rivera of Jacksonville, said people take the maritime industry for granted when they grab goods off of the shelf or drive a car off of the lot. He said the industry saved his son, who did not always make the best choices. Green said he sat through those six weeks of hearings for his son.

Green predicted there will be changes in the industry. He said it has been a long process, but he is encouraged by the work of investigators and expects positive changes.

Green does not expect all of the answers families want and said some things will be left to conjecture.

The El Faro traveled between between Jacksonville, where many of the crewmembers including Rivera lived, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Loading and securing cargo

Federal investigators drilled down on the final day into incidents of the ship leaning during loading, enough that the captain stopped loading in one instance, and about whether there were sufficient straps and chains on board for additional securing of cargo if necessary.

A Coast Guard investigator asked Don Matthews, marine operations manager for Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, about possible effects of the loading that could have affected the integrity of the ship. Matthews, who testified in a previous hearing, was the final witness.

Investigators asked about two incidents, one in San Juan on Sept. 18 and another on the final loading on the El Faro on Sept. 29 in Jacksonville, when the ship had an excessive list, or lean.

The captain stopped loading in San Juan because of concerns with the list. The excessive list could be a risk for the vessel, the chief mate warned in an email.

Several company officials emailed about the “excessive list” and addressing the concern.

Matthews, who was on vacation at the time of loading for the final voyage, said he does not believe they stopped loading the ship in Jacksonville.

The chief mate talked to Davidson in the final hours on board the ship, in the recovered audio, about those loading the ship not properly securing the cargo with lashings.

Bennett, Davidson’s attorney, pointed to Davidson saying in the transcript he went directly to the foreman “all the time” with concerns about loading and skipped the middle man.

During the ship’s final voyage, crew members are heard in the recovered audio talking about there not being enough lashings to secure cargo and saying those on board were damaged.

Matthews insisted, based on inventories, there were sufficient lashings on the ship, although testimony indicated there was no record of an inventory in the months before the final El Faro voyage.

Previous witnesses said the El Faro officers never requested, and those loading the ship did not use, the lashings and system intended for heavy weather.

When asked by a Tote attorney, Matthews said the captain and chief mate are responsible for the stability of the ship.

Davidson altered course less than two months before the ship sank to avoid a tropical storm. Investigators asked whether any company officials questioned Davidson about taking the longer route, which would have added time and cost. Matthews said he was not aware of any such conversations.

Investigators have asked about the pressures on captains related to financial concerns, about arriving in port on time and keeping the fuel burned to a minimum.

Matthews indicated there were discussions at times about fuel consumption.

Investigation transitioning

The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation is the highest level of investigation for the Coast Guard and the first board since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010.

The Coast Guard and NTSB, which have conducted separate but coordinated investigations, have collected substantial evidence in the case. Neubauer said the investigations would definitely be independent moving forward.

The marine board will move from a fact-finding phase into an analysis of the causes and of whether there were criminal or negligent acts, and to propose changes to the industry. Neubauer has no timeline to complete the investigation and submit the findings to the Coast Guard commandant.

He said, “It is going to take as long as it takes to get it right.”

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©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com
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A video screen grab shows the stern of the sunken ship El Faro.
NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD

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