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Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation “hopeful” for change following two year probe of El Faro sinking 
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Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation “hopeful” for change following two year probe of El Faro sinking 

Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation “hopeful” for change following two year probe of El Faro sinking 
Photo Credit: Stephanie Brown

Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation “hopeful” for change following two year probe of El Faro sinking 

As the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation releases their findings on the El Faro sinking two years after the ship went down in Hurricane Joaquin, the Board Chair is giving us a better idea of the thought and intent behind those recommendations.

El Faro Update

Topics: The Coast Guard investigators have released their findings. Action News Jax reporter Lorena Inclan joins WOKV anchor Stephanie Brown to give you the latest information.

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IN DEPTH: Coast Guard investigators recommend civil penalty action against El Faro’s operator

MBI Chair Captain Jason Neubauer says they identified multiple factors that contributed to the sinking, all of which link back to four parties: El Faro’s Master Captain Michael Davidson; TOTE, as the company over El Faro’s owner TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and operator TOTE Services; the American Bureau of Shipping, as El Faro’s surveyor under the Alternate Complaince Program; and the Coast Guard. The primary problem, according to the MBI, was the ship’s proximity to the eye of Joaquin.

“The Master misjudged the path of Hurricane Joaquin and overestimated the vessel’s heavy weather survivability, while also failing to take adequate precautions to monitor and prepare for heavy weather. During critical periods of navigation, when watchstanders were looking to the Master for his guidance and expertise, he failed to understand the severity and that the El Faro’s projected closest point of approach was decreasing,” Neubauer says.

While the MBI Report doesn’t impose any penalties on the licenses of active mariners, Neubauer says- had Davidson survived- they would have recommended a negligence complaint against his credentials.

GALLERY:El Faro’s wreckage

While Davidson is ultimately responsible for the ship’s navigation, TOTE is responsible for its safe operation. Neubauer says TOTE failed to identify heavy weather as a threat to the vessel and failed to comply with work/rest requirements. He says the Safety Management System was “ineffective” when faced with discrepancies and “insufficient” for supporting the vessel operations while at sea.

The MBI has recommended civil penalty action against TOTE because of the work/rest violations, potential failure to have trained the riding crew, and two instances where repairs were not reported to the appropriate channels. Neubauer says the Officer in Charge, Marine Inspections in Sector Jacksonville will be responsible for that investigation, which he believes could ultimately lead to fines totaling around $80,000.

FULL DOCUMENT: Coast Guard MBI’s Report of Investigation

TOTE also shares in responsibility for the condition of the ship, as does the vessel’s authorized class society under the Alternate Compliance Program- the American Bureau of Shipping. Neubauer says ABS failed to meet “expected performance standards under ACP, which is a special inspection program that allows ACS’s to conduct some survey work on behalf of the Coast Guard.

“The use of unqualified surveyors for boiler inspections on the El Faro, the lack of timely communication with the Coast Guard ahead of ACP activities, and the failure of surveyors to identify degraded material condition in key areas aboard the El Yunque- a sister vessel to the El Faro- all raise concerns about ABS’s performance on behalf of the Coast Guard,” Neubauer says.

WOKV asked Neubauer whether he’s comfortable with ABS still performing surveys under ACP at this time.

“The MBI did find some areas that we can improve, and there are several recommendations in the Report that point to areas where we can enhance training, oversee ACS competency, and also be more transparent in the results of the US flagged surveys and inspections that we conduct, specially substandard inspections- where we find vessels are substandard,” he says.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: The sinking of El Faro

The Coast Guard also bears responsibility, according to Neubauer, for a lack of regulatory oversight under ACP. In the case of the extreme wastage that was found on El Faro’s sister ship, El Yunque, and presumed to be on the vessel itself, Neubauer says there was a regulatory failure across the board.

“The problem with those areas is that they were hard to access, and it was missed by not only TOTE, but by ABS and the Coast Guard. The wastage we saw on El Yunque was longstanding, and would have been there for many years. So, we just felt, in the end, something was missed by the entire regulatory system,” he says.

He says the MBI has determined the Coast Guard was wrong to not determine the ship’s conversion from “roll-on roll-off” to also accomodating cargo to be a “major conversion”- something that would have triggered new regulations and reviews on the ship’s operation. Additionally, he says there was apparently some kind of flaw in the design process, which allowed El Faro to operate with a low level of lube oil sump. The MBI has determined that, with the conditions El Faro was facing, that low level likely resulted in a loss of suction, which led to the loss of propulsion, but he says that was a risk the crew was not aware of.

GALLERY: Tributes to the El Faro crew

The MBI Report  and recommendations focus on the Safety Management System, according to Neubauer- making sure the company identifies risks to the crew and vessel and conducts drills to appropriately test that. He says the MBI wants to see the current drill requirements go even further, testing damage control scenarios as well. This is partly due to the MBI’s assessment that the crew didn’t appear to fully know how to appropriately respond to this incident.

Another personnel factor- aside from work/rest hours- is the apparent anxiety on board over TOTE’s selection of crew for their new class of vessels, among other things. To address some of the potential crewing concerns, the MBI is recommending data- including work/rest hours- be periodically sent back to shore while a ship is at sea, in order to prevent one of their frustrations in this investigation, that the crew logs were on board at the time of the sinking.

Additionally, the ship’s age- and the fact that it was therefore grandfathered in under older regulations- was a key focus of the investigation. El Faro was still allowed to have open lifeboats because of her age, although ships constructed after the mid 1980s are required to have fully enclosed lifeboats. Neubauer says there are about 50 deep draft vessels that still have open lifeboats, and that’s something they want to change. He says the lifeboats El Faro’s crew had available were “not an option” in the weather conditions they faced, but they “may have had a chance” with newer models.

GALLERY:Exhibits from the NTSB’s El Faro investigation

Families of the 33 people who lost their lives in the sinking were briefed by investigators yesterday at three locations- one briefing in Jacksonville, one in Maine, and one in Poland. Unlike most other MBIs, the ROI is being publicly released before the Commandant issues his final action. The Board tells us they wanted to be transparent and also give the maritime industry the ability to self correct, which is why they sought the exception to release the ROI now.

Neubauer says he’s already seen some corrections in the two years this investigation has run. He says there has been an increased awareness of watertightness, especially on older vessels. The Coast  Guard also launched a heightened inspection program on some ACP vessels, especially older ones. The work done by traveling inspectors ultimately led to three vessels being scrapped and several others receiving “no sail” orders, pending upgrades.

There’s no set timeline for how long the Commandant will take to review the ROI and issue his orders.

El Faro sank October 1, 2015 in Hurricane Joaquin, while heavily loaded with cargo and transiting from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. The remains of only one of the 33 people on board were located, but because of the ongoing search and rescue operations, those remains were not recovered. 

AUDIO: El Faro Captain’s final shoreside call describes “marine emergency”

Other recommendations from the MBI include that there be more GPS beacons- including for the crew and VDR- to increase the chance of location after an incident like this. They’re further asking VDR’s be required to capture more information, including the other end of phone conversations- with the current system only recording conversations taking place in the bridge.

El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder- or black box- transcription was the longest ever compiled by the NTSB. It took two missions to find the VDR and a third to salvage it, but the devide ultimately gave investigators more than 26 hours of data, including conversations from the bridge.

The NTSB participated in the MBI hearing process, but is conducting its own investigation. Until now, they’ve released several factual reports, interview transcriptions, and other information, but their full recommendations will be voted on by the Board in December. They’ve already put out recommendations about the safety of mariners at sea. They issued that along with the start of hurricane season, saying they didn’t want to wait to try to create action.

FULL RECAP:Factual reports from the NTSB’s investigation

There were three two-week hearing sessions held in Jacksonville by the MBI, during which dozens of witnesses were called for questioning by the MBI, NTSB, and four “Parties in Interest”- the American Bureau of Shipping, Herbert Engineering, TOTE, and the widow of El Faro’s Captain.

All 33 families have previously settled their wrongful death lawsuits against the owner and operator of the vessel.

Overall, Neubauer says the Board feels this investigation is the most important work they will do in their careers, and they’re optimistic it will lead to real change. He says there’s already a team at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington DC that’s working on the Final Action Memo the Commandant will issue.

“I know that it’s a high priority,” he says.

The attorney for the widow of El Faro’s Captain says they disagree with portions of the Report. He, and the other PII’s and families, have 30 days to submit their comments to the Commandant for consideration.

Read More

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According to prosecutors, the officers had confirmed the presence in the parking lot of the car suspected in the abduction. Blood was visible on the front passenger seat, they said. The officer recording the search is seen handing a colleague the hotel paperwork, asking her to hold on to it. Meanwhile, other officers are already closing in on Webb upstairs. After obtaining a police shield, the officer with the body camera is seen running up several flights of stairs to the third floor, where a team waits outside Room 333. Webb and the girl are on the other side of the door. “Fort Worth PD, open the door,” an officer is heard calling as he knocks repeatedly, getting no answer. After several seconds, an officer gives the command, “Ram it.” As one officer kicks at the door and another readies a metal battering ram, Webb calls from the other side: “Hold on.” “Open the door! Open the door! Fort Worth Police Department! Open the door!” an officer yells. Webb doesn’t respond, so the officer with the ram begins striking the door. “Hold on, man, I’m getting dressed,” Webb calls. “Open the God-(expletive) door!” an officer yells back. The officer with the ram hits the door a fourth and final time as Webb tells officers he’s opening the door. “Hands. Let me see your hands,” an officer tells him as the door swings open. “Step out here. Step out.” “God (expletive),” Webb mutters, sounding annoyed, as the officers grab him and begin to pull him into the hallway, naked except for a pair of white socks. Two officers force him onto the ground and handcuff him as the rest swarm into the hotel room, guns drawn, in search of the girl. “Blood on the bed,” an officer notes as the beam of a police flashlight illuminates the room. A moment later, success. “Hey, here she is! Here she is!” an officer exclaims. The girl is seen rising from the plastic bin as the officer squats down to pick her up. Her small arms encircle his neck. “Got her! We got her! We got her!” another officer calls out in the video. Watch the footage below, courtesy of WFAA. Warning: The video may be difficult for some viewers. As the officers, out of breath but jubilant, radio in the news that the girl has been found and Webb is in custody, she is heard asking them about her clothes. “Don’t worry about your clothes,” an officer tells her. The officer wearing the body camera finds a towel to wrap around the girl. “Here you go, baby,” the officer says as he hands the towel to a colleague. They then head down the hotel stairwell with the girl. “Come here, sweetheart,” the officer says as he holds the door to the stairwell open. “You’re OK,” the officer carrying the girl says. “Yeah,” she responds. “You’re safe, we got you,” the officer continues as they begin their descent. “You’re going to be OK,” the officer filming the incident says. As they arrive in the parking lot of the hotel, the officers order two men in the parking lot to stand back. One of them is later identified as the girl’s father, who is on the phone telling someone where his daughter had been found. According to ABC News, the pastor who called in the tip about Webb’s car was also at the scene when the girl was brought out. A brazen daylight kidnapping  Officers wrapped Webb in a sheet and took him to the police station where, in a three-hour recorded statement, he admitted to kidnapping and raping the girl. According to the Star-Telegram, FBI Special Agent Chris Thompson and Fort Worth Police Detective Amy Heise asked Webb early in the interview if he knew why he was there. “A little girl,” he responded. “That little girl.” Webb initially lied to the investigators, claiming he’d been paid $1,000 by a man named Nick to abduct and sexually assault the 8-year-old, the newspaper reported. He came clean about two hours into the interview, telling Thompson and Heise they deserved the truth because they had “been nice to (him) considering what the (expletive) he did.” Crying at times, Webb told the investigators he arrived at the hotel with the girl around 8:30 p.m. after spending a couple of hours in the car in an empty church parking lot. He made her stay hidden on the front passenger floorboard of the vehicle, court records indicate. Webb admitted in his confession that he threatened the girl in an effort to keep her from telling police what he’d done to her. “What did you say to scare her, Michael?” Heise asks in the video. “I told her if she said anything, I would do something to her parents,” Webb says, sobbing. The girl told investigators that same threat is what kept her quiet the first time police showed up at the kidnapper’s hotel room looking for her. Webb’s federal public defender, John Stickney, attempted in September to get his confession thrown out, alleging that his client had not slept in three days and was not lucid enough the morning of May 19 to waive his right to speak without a lawyer present. Following a hearing that included testimony from Thompson, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor denied the motion, the Star-Telegram reported. During the trial, Webb’s lawyers did not cross-examine any of the prosecution’s witnesses or call any of their own. According to the newspaper, they urged jurors to ignore the emotions brought up by the testimony regarding the girl’s sexual assault. Stickney argued during his closing that the government failed to produce evidence that Webb was participating in interstate commerce during the crime, one of the elements that must be proven under the federal law against kidnapping. Court records in the case cite the hotel’s proximity to the interstate, making it a popular stopover for interstate travelers, as proof of that element of the kidnapping charge. Webb, who used Google maps on his cellphone to find the hotel, also drove along Interstate 35 and Interstate 20 to get there. “The cellphone, the internet and the interstate highways were used to facilitate and to further the commission of the offense because they helped Webb reach the hotel by the most direct route,” the documents say. The records and media reports describe how Webb, who was driving a gray Ford 500 registered to his mother, approached his victim and her mother twice as the pair walked along 6th Avenue in Fort Worth the evening of the abduction. According to the Star-Telegraph, the girl’s mother, who was not named to keep her daughter from being identified because of the sexual assault, testified at Webb’s September trial that he asked her upon his first approach if she wanted to get high. He also asked if she liked money, the woman said. Webb drove off but returned a short time later. That time, he got out of the car and grabbed her daughter, pushing the girl into the car through the driver’s door before climbing in after her. The girl’s mother tried to climb onto his lap to hit the brakes, but Webb was able to push her out of the car and speed away. In his confession, portions of which have been made public, Webb tells Thompson and Heise he “scoped (the neighborhood) out pretty good” in advance. Still, he said, he must have missed at least one witness. “When I pushed the woman and grabbed her, I heard somebody screaming. I heard somebody screaming,” Webb says in the video. That portion of the abduction was captured on a doorbell camera across the street from the scuffle. In the grainy footage, the girl’s mother can be seen falling to the asphalt as Webb drives off with her daughter. She gets up and runs down the street, screaming for help. “Help me! Help me, please!” the girl’s mother screams. “My daughter just got kidnapped!” Watch footage from the doorbell camera below, courtesy of ABC News. The homeowner of the home with the camera can be seen stopping in his yard and watching in alarm as the woman runs down the street. Webb’s car speeds off in the distance. The girl’s mother was equally frantic in her 911 call, which was obtained by ABC News. “A car, a gray car, just drove off. I think it was a handicap. He just kidnapped my daughter,” the panic-stricken woman tells the dispatcher. “He dragged me off the street and kidnapped my daughter.” The woman pleads with the dispatcher, describing the abductor as a scary man who had been harassing them. She says police need to find her daughter, now. “Please,” she tells the dispatcher. “I can’t let her be gone! Please!” A critical clue  Thompson, who works on the FBI’s Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Task Force, told ABC News the doorbell camera that caught the tail end of the abduction was a lucky break. The camera is not designed to record any random movement in the street, like a car driving past. It kicked on when the homeowner stepped outside. “The person who owned the home, essentially, accidentally activated the Ring doorbell at that time,” Thompson told the network. The footage, which gave investigators a look at the kidnapper’s vehicle, was crucial. “The Ring doorbell video was the only piece of video that was available for this particular case. It was absolutely critical,” the FBI agent said. The girl’s mother was also able to give detectives a description of the man who snatched her daughter. News of the abduction spread quickly through Fort Worth-area media, leading several members of the community to aid in the search for the missing girl. Heise, who led her department’s investigation, also reached out to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for assistance. Heise told ABC News each moment that went by without word of the girl’s whereabouts and safety felt heavy. “It felt like time was flying by and that I was moving so slow, and that I just could not move fast enough,” Heise told the network. “Because I knew we needed to move fast, and it just felt like I just couldn't get it done.” The detective said she was in a “state of shock” when she learned the girl had been found alive. “I was working as hard as I could to find this little girl, and I just couldn't believe that we had done it,” Heise said. “And in that moment, I just felt a great sense of gratitude to the community, because they did this. They did this. It wasn't us.” Matthew DeSarno, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office, said following Webb’s September conviction that he was proud of the collaboration of all those involved in the case, including his agency’s Child Exploitation Task Force and the Fort Worth Police Department’s Major Case Unit Task Force. He also thanked the citizen volunteers, who he said “worked tirelessly” to help bring the victim home to her family. “The critical role volunteer searchers and other members of the public played in recovering the victim cannot be overstated, and the FBI is grateful for their assistance,” DeSarno said. Following Webb’s sentencing Thursday, DeSarno said law enforcement and area residents took a dangerous predator off the streets. “Today’s sentence sends an important message to all predators,” the agent said. “We will not allow any crime against children to go unpunished.”
  • Moxie Kitchen and Cocktails at the Markets at Town Center will soon have a new name and a new menu. The restaurant announced on Facebook, that it will be changing its name to Prati Italia and will feature a new Italian menu, with handmade pastas, Roman-style pizzas, and craft cocktails.  Moxie Kitchen and Cocktails says a restaurant chain with an earlier registered variation of 'Moxie' has made plans to expand into the Florida market, prompting the changes.  However, the restaurant says it will keep the same chef, Chef Tom Gray, and team.  The grand opening for Prati Italia is set for mid-January. In the meantime, they will continue business as usual until the new year.
  • A man who was armed with a knife was shot multiple times by a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officer on the northside this morning. As of a midday news briefing by JSO, the suspect was in critical condition at a hospital.  Police were called around 7:30 am about a suspicious person on Hawthorne Street near the Trout River.  Officers recognized the man as a suspect in a burglary in the same neighborhood on October 31st.  The man was standing in a yard with both hands in his pockets.  Chief TK Waters says two officers gave verbal commands for the man to show his hands.  “The suspect turned to run as officers approached. The suspect did remove his hands as he was running, they could not see it”, said Waters.  One of the officers deployed a taser and while the man fell to the ground, he was not incapacitated.  “As a second officer approached from a different direction, he fell to the ground in close proximity to the suspect. The suspect then turned toward the officer on the ground holding a knife in his right hand”, said Waters.  Officer RA Linde, an 11-year veteran with JSO, fired three times, striking the suspect. This is officer Linde’s first officer-involved shooting.  Both officers were wearing body cameras.  Police did not publicly release the suspect’s identity until his family is notified, however Chief Waters said the suspect has prior convictions for several burglaries as well as a drug conviction. 

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