Jacksonville, FL - Amid questions about the leadership qualities of El Faro’s Captain, new potential concerns are surfacing on how closely the ship’s operator kept to its own crewing and oversight policies.
Through the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation on the El Faro sinking so far, investigators have presented information that shows crew evaluations were not done in accordance with the timeline in TOTE’s procedures. Of those that were filed, some were not completed and signed per the company’s regulations. Former TOTE Services Crewing Manager Melissa Clark- who is now the Crewing Administrator for Crowley Maritime- says she raised that concern with her supervisor, but the response was only to copy him as she sent out reminders to the vessels that deadlines were coming.
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Some of the things that investigators believe to be missing from these files include specific details of disciplinary action. Specifically, an incident that’s been referenced multiple times in the MBI involved a Chief Mate on El Faro falling asleep multiple times while on watch. He was later demoted, and the MBI said the demotion is in his file, but the reasoning is not.
Clark says she’s unsure how that information didn’t wind up in the file. Just ahead of the MBI wrapping for the day, the Board Chair said TOTE had found a hard copy of a warning letter given to the Chief Mate on this matter, and it was introducing it as an exhibit.
In another instance, Clark says she informed the company that her office had a large workload.
“I felt at the time I could have used additional staff,” Clark says.
She told investigators she didn’t get any additional help ahead of the sinking, but says a temp was added soon before she left the company.
The questioning comes as investigators look at the shoreside support available to vessels.
Captain Peter Villacampa, a former Master of El Faro’s sister ship, El Morro, says he was always able to get assistance and repairs lined up as needed through the company, in his roughly 14 years on the bridge of the ship. There was one point in 2012, when El Morro had some scheduled maintenance pushed off, and an audit report read by investigators said the company’s reorganization was at least partially to blame.
“There was an intermediate non-conformance issued by TSI as a result of the failing maintenance procedures on board the vessel. The root cause of the problem was traced to lack of communication between the ship staff and office staff,” says the audit report, as read by the Board.
Villacampa says they had lost two of three Port Engineers in Jacksonville, causing the delay, but it was able to be resolved through an increase in vessel visits and oversight of the maintenance.
The larger question, though, is whether the crew is willing to come forward to access any potential shoreside support.
During testimony earlier this week, a former Able-Bodied Seaman spoke about the “real world”, where he believes he would be fired for bringing a complaint to the company or Coast Guard. Clark said there was a definite reluctance to come forward among the crew. Specifically, she was asked whether she’d heard any complaints about El Faro Captain Michael Davidson’s leadership. She says there was a general sense of frustration, but nobody wanted to give details.
“Was that your general experience on other vessels like the El Yunque,” asked MBI Chair Captain Jason Neubauer.
“Absolutely,” Clark responded.
“Would you say those comments are common from almost every vessel you visited,” asked Neubauer.
“Yes sir,” said Clark.
Villacampa confirmed that, when he ran El Morro, he would have been able to see all incoming and outgoing emails. He also had to give permission to any crew member that was seeking to use the ship’s phone. Those answers are helping the MBI get the greater context for whether issues at sea could truly be anonymously reported.
Crew frustration and turnover has been another consistent area of scrutiny for the MBI, and it surfaced once again in Thursday’s testimony. The former Able-Bodied Seaman described a tense environment on board that sometimes pitted crew members against each other. Clark confirmed in her testimony that the division is something they were actively addressing at the time.
An email with Clark, a Chief Mate, and another company official talked about needing a “divide and conquer” strategy for El Faro and her other sister vessel El Yunque.
“Regarding crew cooperation and setting expectations with regard to the crew, making sure that policies were being followed and enforced, and also in an attempt to get away from the licensed v unlicensed, us v them mentality. So we discussed different ways to ensure the unlicensed crew felt comfortable bringing forth concerns, any issues that they had, and work collectively as a team, and boost morale, and that sort of thing,” Clark said, explaining the meaning of the email to the Board.
That was implemented through conversations with the ships’ senior officers, according to Clark. Nevertheless, one of the sources of tension remained even through what would become El Faro’s final voyage- the decisions on who would staff TOTE’s new Marlin class of vessels.
Davidson had sought a position on the new vessels, and was initially denied. Email communications showed that decision had changed, and he was going to become a Master on one of the vessels, but then there was another internal decision not to award him the ship after all. Prior testimony has detailed the reason TOTE says they changed their decision, but it now seems that Davidson was not definitively told one way or the other what was going to happen.
“Afternoon. It’s looking like I won’t be home until 03 December. They have no one to relieve me and now I’m actually on my scheduled rotation, which has me home for Christmas. Again, I feel taken advantage of… but, they pay really good. Who knows how long this good fortune will last. I have no idea if I’m even going on the Marlin class vessels yet,” says an email from Davidson on September 24th, as read by the Board.
The ship’s Voyage Data Recorder transcript also shows Davidson and the Chief Mate on the final voyage were both talking about being “in line for the choppin’ block” and “waitin’ to get screwed”.
Clark says the decisions and communications relating to the Marlin class were, largely, not handled by her office. She says she thought there were better candidates than Davidson, and she did write an email that was critical of him, but she told the MBI that the email was just relaying the feelings of those involved in the selection process.
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The attorney for Davidson’s widow, William Bennett, brought Clark back to when Davidson was first taken on by TOTE in 2013. Bennett says Davidson resigned his prior vessel because the company wanted him to move a ship with a steering gear problem under its own power, but he considered that a safety rick, so he refused and ordered tugs. That company had previously used TOTE for managing and crewing, so Davidson reached out to Clark, who he had previously worked with. She told him that they didn’t have a Master’s job at the time, to which Davidson responded that he would be willing to take a post as Third Mate.
“He was willing to give up his seagoing career as a Captain over a safety concern. That’s pretty honorable, isn’t it,” Bennett asked.
“Yes,” Clark responded.
Davidson did ultimately come on as Third Mate, and was later promoted to Master of El Morro, before eventually leading El Faro.
Villacampa says he was always able to get repairs when needed, and despite the increasing pace of work, there was no real fall in the assistance they got or pressure to be on time. He says there were checklists and guidelines for a range of scenarios, including critical operations.
There were some areas that he says they had to figure things out themselves, though, including how to use the Bon Voyage System.
“I don’t recall any formal training. It was just something that between myself and the three mates, we just played around with it and found what suited us, what we needed, and in turn we taught each other how to use the system,” Villacampa says.
BVS takes forecast information and adds in wind and sea conditions, while plotting it with the ship’s location. We’ve heard prior testimony that BVS is a system which Davidson relied on, and which had a one-time glitch that caused the ship to receive a duplicated storm track in the hours ahead of the sinking.
In the event of heavy weather, Villacampa says he was always able to get navigational help or other advice from the shore. He says he was not required to get permission, though, if he wanted to change the route.
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