Cargo ops issues "routinely" surfaced in El Faro's final weeks

The month leading up to the sinking of El Faro came with questions on how cargo was being loaded and secured.

The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation has previously heard that those involved in securing the cargo were driven more by their experience than by actual lashing manuals and guidelines. Testimony has also detailed two incidents- including one the day El Faro left on what would become her final voyage- where the ship sustained a larger than normal list during cargo loading operations.

While speaking with the final witness for the MBI public hearing, that was all strung together with crew statements and emails showing a larger concern.

Just ahead of El Faro's final departure from Jacksonville, cargo loading operations had to be stopped and reconfigured, when the vessel reached an estimated 4.3 degree list. That was the second time in less than two weeks that there was a problem during cargo loading, with the first incident coming September 18th in San Juan. During Friday's questioning, MBI member Keith Fawcett read several emails that showed growing crew concern regarding this problem.

“Good morning again. This morning, approximately an hour and a half, 0730 local time, after the start of cargo, the vessel reached a maximum list of 3.5 degrees. The Captain and I attempted to call Sea Star personnel via radio, but no one answered our calls. The Captain made the decision to stop cargo, and announced this intention over the radio. For context, while the Captain was voicing this instruction I was able to get a hold of (name withheld) on my cell phone and instruct him to use the gantry crane to only discharge the port side containers, and that if the crane drivers in the swinging cranes working the bow and behind the house were unable to discharge from the port side, then I wanted those cranes to stop until the list was back to acceptable limits. Over the past few weeks the Captain and I have routinely needed to advise the San Juan ops team of the vessels list and insist that steps be taken to remedy the situation. An excessive list creates many large risks for the vessel and her equipment. I have spoken with (name withheld) about the need for the operators to systematically control the discharge the vessel and to coordinate the offloading and loading of the vessel so three cranes are not working on one side of the vessel at one time. I hope that in voicing these concerns to (name withheld), that during future port calls in San Juan, that the vessel will not be placed in a compromised position. I just wanted to make you aware of the events and the steps taken by the Captain and I to protect the vessel,” says an email from El Faro’s Chief Mate at the time, Bryan Vagts, as read by the MBI.

Don Matthews, the Marine Operations Manager for TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico- El Faro's owner- was involved in the email chain, which also involved El Faro Captain Michael Davidson assessing the situation and making recommendations, and Matthews ultimately looping in leadership from PORTUS, who does the cargo loading and lashing. One of the emails further said PORTUS was going to address the issue.

Other questions have surfaced in regard to the quality of the lashing itself.

"it's– it's– they don't they don't do the lashing the way it oughta be done," said El Faro's Chief Mate, as captured by the ship's Voyage Data Recorder on the final trip.

Overall, Matthews says he hadn’t fielded too many concerns about the securing job.

“There were perhaps instances where maybe a discrepancy was noted, but it wasn’t a real significant ongoing concern,” he says.

Matthews wasn’t working ahead of El Faro’s final voyage, but he told the MBI that there was no mention to him whether the lashings were given an additional check after the ship took on the estimated 4.3 degree list. He says the responsibility of checking the quality of the lashing would have fallen on the Chief Mate.

Another crew conversation in the VDR shows questions about the lashing gear.

“speaking of cargo lashings– but you don't have any spares down there,” said an Able-Bodied Seaman to the Third Mate.

Matthews says the three prior El Faro cargo lashing inventories that they have record for show the ship had over the required amount of lashing gear on board, and that more was available upon request. The final inventory that could be found was from April, though, and Matthews says the policy was to do them every two months. The Chief Mate conducts the inventory, and the turnover notes from June indicate that there was a lashing inventory completed, but the inventory itself couldn’t be found, nor has any evidence of an August inventory.

“The reality for the crew- those two crew people- was that conversation,” Fawcett says.

Fawcett asked whether it’s possible there was no inventory done in the months leading up to the sinking.

“It’s possible, but I would think not probable,” Matthews says.

Instead, Matthews says he may have misplaced the records.

He was also questioned about a piece of shoreside support which El Faro apparently didn't receive in the final month ahead of her sinking, a Port Mate. The Port Mate position helps with watch shifts and cargo loading operations, but the MBI says records show one was not available for El Faro in Jacksonville after September 1st.

"Good afternoon, sir. As you can see below, the vessel and the company have been searching for a Port Mate who can assist the mates loading the vessel in Jacksonville. It is safe to say having a Port Mate during loading of the vessel on Tuesday is essential. At this time, TOTE is having difficulties locating a Port Mate, and I am hoping that you might be able to locate a person from PORTUS who can come on and assist the vessel for approximately 8 hours on Tuesday from 1100 to 1900. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.," Vagts said in a September 12th email read by the MBI.

Matthews believed he would have brought that issue to the attention of the crewing department, but prior testimony from the head of that department at the time said it was unclear why they weren't filling the position.

These questions come as the MBI was presented with a National Cargo Bureau report that found it "likely" the ship's cargo had shifted on the final voyage, although it's unclear if that contributed to the sinking or happened as a result. The NCB report also found a "tendency" toward improper lashing on some cargo on TOTE vessels. TOTE disputed the report, saying was done without consideration of many factors like ship speed and weather conditions.

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