Former El Faro crew members continue to help investigators piece together what may have been happening on board ahead of the ship’s sinking.
For the second time, former El Faro Third Mate Alejandro Berrios testified in front of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation to give insight on some of the conversations captured by the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder and other data that was recovered from the device.
With a VDR conversation showing two crew members talking about a time an officer had fallen asleep while on watch, witnesses during this MBI have been questioned about crew fatigue. Berrios says fatigue wasn't an issue and- especially working under El Faro Captain Michael Davidson- rest was closely monitored. He says Davidson would not just closely follow whether crew got enough rest per regulation, but he would offer to pick up extra watches even if an officer was feeling tired.
“You have to be careful from [El Faro Master] Mike Davidson. He will ask you personally if you were well rested and he will remind you that he’s available to take over the watch,” Berrios says.
A prior witness testified that work and rest hours have now been moved to a software system, instead of being tracked through a form. Berrios explained to investigators how the tracking is done, including explaining specific inputs from El Faro.
He wasn’t aware at the time of the sinking of a certain federal regulation dealing with how much on-duty time an officer has to have before working a watch shift, while the ship is leaving port. Questions from investigators immediately following an explanation of that regulation talked specifically about watch and rest hours ahead of El Faro leaving, but didn’t give enough detail at this point to see how the regulation applied to the ship in that time frame.
Berrios also wasn’t familiar with any specific definition for “rest” as required under work guidelines. He says he interpreted it as “not working”- whether that was listening to music, relaxing in his cabin, or other leisure activies.
Relating to other ship operations, Berrios says he saw drills performed often, and the lifeboat components were checked weekly. The hydrostatic releases for two of the ship's life rafts were going to expire in September 2015, according to a record cited by the MBI Board. An email from the ship's Chief Mate on the morning of September 29, 2015 showed they were waiting for at least one to come through.
“Just following up. As far as I know, we have not received the hydrostatic release, still need it.” said the email, per a reading during the MBI.
Berrios believes there was likely a paperwork issue not reflecting that there were new life rafts, not that the hydrostatics were going to expire while on what would become the final voyage. According to the NTSB, El Faro had two extra life rafts on board in addition to the three required, and none were found in their stowed location in the wreckage.
If there was an error with the paperwork, it wasn't one that was common, according to his assessment of the crew. Berrios described his counterparts as meticulous and detailed. He got emotional when being questioned about whether he believed the ship had "a good crew".
He told investigators he had been trained on whistleblowing procedures, although he wasn’t completely familiar with how to report from at sea, because any phone call would likely not be from an isolated location.
Berrios touched on a range of other topics- from changing out of autopilot steering to working the weather systems and his responsibility as a Port Mate, when he previously held that position.
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