Family members say Coast Guard did its job with El Faro investigation
By TERESA STEPZINSKI | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 2, 2017
Their hugs said more than words could.
Trembling hands held close a simple program outlining the memorial service to come.
Tears dried but threatened to flow again, the families of El Faro mariners came together Sunday to remember and mourn the 33 loved ones lost at sea when the 790-foot cargo ship sailed head on into Hurricane Joaquin – a killer Category 3 storm – two years ago Sunday.
In a grim reunion, the families hugged and greeted each other quietly at a private memorial held at the Seafarers International Union Hall in Jacksonville.
Four hours earlier, the U.S. Coast Guard made public its final investigative report into the sinking of the Jacksonville-based cargo ship.
Some conceded being overwhelmed with emotion at the investigative findings of the nation’s worst sea tragedy in 40 years.
The Coast Guard had given the report to the families and fielded their questions Saturday during a private meeting at the Seafarers Hall.
They now know the how and the why El Faro plunged 15,000 feet to the bottom of the ocean near San Salvador Island in the Bahamas while en route from Jacksonville to San Juan Puerto Rico.
Although the Coast Guard did its best to answer their questions and concerns, some families said Sunday, there can never truly be closure.
“My brother and the 32 other members of the crew, who I never met and never will meet, are gone. And they will always be gone. And there is no such thing as closure. Death is the most finite experience,” said Glen Jackson, the brother of Jack E. Jackson, 60, an able seaman serving on the ship.
Jack Jackson was at the helm of the ship when it left Jacksonville, where he and many other crew members lived.
His brother said there is some satisfaction, if not comfort, in knowing the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigated the sinking so thoroughly.
“The Coast Guard was quite upfront that it was largely a systematic failure of oversight that contributed to the accident,” said Glen Jackson, noting the primary cause was the ship’s proximity to the hurricane, but other factors cited in the report such as the captain’s misjudgment of the storm’s path and the ship’s capability, contributed to the doomed voyage.
Jackson said the Coast Guard answered his questions to the extent they could be answered. During the Saturday meeting between El Faro family members and Coast Guard officials, Jackson asked whether a hull fracture – documented on video of the wreckage – possibly was the source of initial flooding on the El Faro. Two sister ships built by the same shipyard suffered similar hull fractures, he said.
However, the Coast Guard and experts agreed the El Faro hull fracture occurred when the ship already was under water, Jackson said.
Jackson also raised questions about the El Faro’s open life boats, and a March 2015 Coast Guard inspection of the vessel. The agency answered his questions to his satisfaction, he said.
“I don’t have the words right now,” said Joanna Johnson, whose son, Lonnie Samuels Jordan of Jacksonville, perished when the ship went down.
Affectionately known as “Big Lonnie,” the 35-year-old Jordan worked on the El Faro for 13 years as a cook and at other jobs. Johnson struggled with her emotions Sunday morning.
“Right now, I just feel like, all of it, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s just seems on both sides, there was really negligence. It’s just a shame that had to happen,” Johnson said.
After losing her son, Johnson established the Lonnie Samuels Jordan Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Jacksonville with a two-fold mission.
The foundation is intended to remember, honor and celebrate the 33 loved ones lost during the El Faro sinking on Oct. 1, 2015. In addition, its mission is “to assist and empower individuals and families affected by catastrophic water disasters by offering counseling services and financial support.”
Rochelle Hamm, widow of Frank J. Hamm, 49, of Jacksonville, who manned the helm as the ship went down, declined comment.
“Now isn’t a good time for me and my family. Please continue to keep us in your prayers,” she said in an email to the Times-Union.
Since his death, she has been pressing for what she calls the Hamm Alert, a new safety system to keep ships in port during major storms. An online petition at change.org, “Hamm Alert will Save Lives at Sea,” had 11,560 signatures as of 5 p.m. Sunday.
Glen Jackson and his sister, Jill Jackson-d’Entremon, previously said their brother, in phone conversations with each of them less than a month before the ship sank, told them about concerns he had about the El Faro.
The Coast Guard issued safety and administrative recommendations in its investigative report.
On Sunday, Glen Jackson said he doubts change will come in the wake of the El Faro’s loss, but if it does, it won’t happen overnight.
“I certainly hope so, but because of the way regulations are promulgated I doubt it,” Jackson said. “Because there are significant forces at play, economically, some of recommendations would be relatively inexpensive to make happen. But some of the other recommendations that they make more expensive to achieve, and as with anything that costs money are difficult to force.”
But the regulation process can take years, said Glen Jackson, citing the Coast Guard recently enacted a regulation regarding tow boats that took 12 years from the initial attempt to when it actually occurred.
On Sunday, Tote responded to the Coast Guard report and recommendations with a written statement:
“The El Faro and its crew were lost on our watch and for this we will be eternally sorry. Nothing we can do will bring back the remarkable crew, but everything we do can work to ensure that those who go to sea, serving us all, are in ever safer environments,” the company said.
It said the report “is another piece of this sacred obligation that everyone who works upon the sea must study and embrace. The report details industry practices which need change.” Tote also said it is committed to working with every stakeholder on these comments and recommendations.
“We remain focused as we have from the start, on caring for the families of those we lost and working daily ashore and at sea to safeguard the lives of all mariners,” the company said.
In April, Tote settled the last of the wrongful death cases filed by the estates of the mariners lost when the cargo ship sank.
Some families and their attorneys previously said the lawsuits weren’t about money, but about getting answers to why their loved ones sailed into the hurricane in a 40-year-old cargo ship.
During Saturday’s meeting with the families, Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer, chairman of the El Faro Marine Board of Investigation, and other Coast Guard officials fielded questions for more than an hour. The session ended when the families ran out of questions to ask, Jackson said.
He and other El Faro families praised Neubauer, as well as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as instrumental in helping find answers. Nelson issued a statement Sunday following the release of the Coast Guard report.
“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of those lost on the El Faro. This tragedy never should have happened, and the findings in this report will serve as a road map for how we can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again,” Nelson said.
©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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This undated photo provided by TOTE Maritime shows the cargo ship, El Faro. On Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said a search team using sophisticated scanning sonar has found the wreckage of a vessel believed to be the ship which went missing with 33 crewmembers on Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin.
TOTE MARITIME VIA AP