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El Faro's shoreside contact underestimated gravity of ship's situation
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El Faro's shoreside contact underestimated gravity of ship's situation

El Faro's shoreside contact underestimated gravity of ship's situation
Photo Credit: NTSB
The NTSB released video footage of their survey of El Faro's wreckage.

El Faro's shoreside contact underestimated gravity of ship's situation

The El Faro Master’s final shoreside communication showed frustration in getting in touch with the ship’s operator, and we’ve now learned about some of the potential problems or miscues that surrounded that.

“The clock is ticking– can I please speak with a Q-I [qualified individual],” said Captain Michael Davidson, after reporting a “marine emergency” shortly ahead of the sinking.

AUDIO: El Faro Captain's final shoreside communications

Through information released during the first hearing session of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation looking in to the El Faro sinking, we learned that the ship’s Master first tried to contact a person known as the Designated Person Ashore, who is the initial point of contact for any questions or concerns on board, serving as a go-between for ship and shore. After leaving a message, Captain Davidson reached out to TOTE Services’ emergency call center, and Davidson was put on a brief hold four times.

One MBI member questioned the apparent frustration in Davidson’s voice during that call.

“This is something that Captain Lawrence [the DPA] was working on a lot. He realized they [call center operators] weren’t reacting as quick as we would have liked, and we were being proactively trying to rectify that,” says TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s Director of Operations Lee Peterson, who was the TOTE Services Director of Safety and Marine Operations at the time of the sinking.

MBI member Keith Fawcett says this was not the first time there was frustration over the call center. He cited an incident about a month prior where El Faro had an oil spill, which Fawcett classified as a minor incident that was properly reported. He didn’t get in to details regarding specific call center frustrations from that incident, but added it in to the conversation.

Peterson says, when El Faro sank, there was no solution to boosting call center operations. He acknowledged that the DPA is supposed to always be available by phone, but the call center knows to work down a list of other people, if contact can’t be established. The DPA at the time, Captain John Lawrence, ultimately did wind up making contact with Captain Davidson soon after, telling investigators he got to his phone right after Davidson left his initial message.

Lawrence, who is now TOTE Services’ Director of Fleet Safety, says he didn’t initially realize the gravity of the case, in part because of Davidson’s calm and professional demeanor.

“After reading the transcript and seeing what was actually happening during this conversation with me, obviously, it was a lot more serious than it first came across to me,” he says.

Lawrence testified during the first round of the MBI hearing session, but with El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder now recovered, he was called back to help investigators fill in some of the gaps, specifically with his conversation with Davidson.

When Davidson started speaking about why he wanted to stay with the ship for the time being, Lawrence started heightening his planned response. By the time Davidson stated he wanted to sound alarms and wake everyone up, Lawrence says he decided he needed to let Davidson get to work, while he started responding on the shore elements.

“That’s when I really realized the seriousness of something was going on,” Lawrence says.

Even then, though, he told investigators he thought he would speak to Captain Davidson again.

“I really didn’t take it to mean that lives were in danger at the time. I felt it more that the ship itself- saying it was disabled at the time, that they just wanted to get things right,” Lawrence says.

Further complicating things, Lawrence wrote notes on the conversation which say Davidson mentioned a 10-12 foot swell. The VDR transcript shows Davidson mentioned 10-12 foot spray, and the MBI says the seas were much higher. Lawrence also didn’t make note of- or mention in prior testimony- anything about the lube oil pressure, despite Davidson saying engineers couldn’t get lube oil pressure and “therefore we’ve got no main engine”, according to the VDR transcript. Lawrence says his focus was the engine being down.

GALLERY: El Faro wreckage

Another potential challenge comes with the lack of a few higher level job posts. The MBI Board says a Safety Coordinator position was listed as “TBD” at the time of the sinking, but there was a candidate who had been interviewed and was waiting to be contacted.

“We were actively looking for somebody to help out with the safety department, to put some more feet on the ground with that,” Peterson says.

Peterson says the company President decided not to fill the position, but he wasn’t sure why. Lawrence later added that TSI was looking at a minor layoff, and didn’t believe it was the right time to bring in someone from the outside.

Investigators have also questioned the Port Mate position- which is an additional shoreside post that helps spell the crew while they’re in port, among other things. We’re told the final time a Port Mate called on El Faro in Jacksonville was September 1, 2015.

The influence of a Port Mate once again led investigators to the topic of documented work/rest hours. Fawcett cited three instances of violations he had found in a small sampling of records he had reviewed which indicated crew members that weren’t in compliance. He asked Peterson how TOTE monitors that, and Peterson says it’s done through an audit process that ultimately winds up back with his office. The more immediate responsibility is on the ship’s Captain and crew.

Peterson spoke at length about the greater reorganization that took place under the TOTE Inc umbrella leading up to mid-2014, and he believes that- in the end- they had a strong network of resources and support on the ground in Jacksonville.

El Faro’s most recent internal audit- from earlier in 2015- showed the ship hadn’t received several company operation memos and other documentation. Lawrence says, when they investigated further, he found the ship’s new email account was to blame.

“They had changed that email address, and apparently I hadn’t noticed or gotten the word, I don’t recall exactly why,” Lawrence says.

That oversight was concerning for investigators, because one of El Faro’s main weather information packets came through email, so the Board asked Lawrence if he thought there could have been an outdated email synched there as well.

“I would feel that if the ship wasn’t receiving a message they were expecting, they would have notified somebody in the company to ask why they’re not receiving these messages,” Lawrence says.

He added that the company documentation the ship wasn’t getting was not expected communication, which would account for why the ship didn’t realize they were missing it.

Another anomaly that was brought to light Monday deals with random drug testing. An email read by investigators said the Captain was notified on September 25th that El Faro would be tested September 28th. Lawrence admits it is not policy to give three days notice on this random test.

WOKV continues to follow the latest from the MBI. Get instant updates on Twitter.

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In the three months since the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China, it has infected at least 607,965 people worldwide. • The United States has reported 104,837 confirmed cases, resulting in 1,711 deaths. • Italy has confirmed 86,498 cases, resulting in 9,134 deaths. • China has recorded 81,996 cases, resulting in 3,299 deaths. • Spain has confirmed 65,719 infections, resulting in 5,138 deaths. • Germany has reported 53,340 cases, resulting in 395 deaths. • Iran has recorded 35,408 cases, resulting in 2,517 deaths. • France has confirmed 33,414 infections, resulting in 1,997 deaths. • The United Kingdom has reported 14,754 cases, resulting in 761 deaths. • Switzerland has confirmed 13,187 cases, resulting in 240 deaths. • South Korea has recorded 9,478 cases, resulting in 144 deaths. 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Of the confirmed deaths, 519 have occurred in New York, 175 Washington state and 119 in Louisiana.  In terms of diagnosed cases, New York remains the hardest hit with at least 44,635 confirmed cases – more than five times any other state – followed by New Jersey with 8,825 and California with 3,801. Five other states have each confirmed at least 3,000 novel coronavirus cases, including: • Washington: 3,723, including 175 deaths • Michigan: 3,657, including 92 deaths • Massachusetts: 3,240, including 35 deaths • Florida: 3,192, including 45 deaths • Illinois: 3,026, including 34 deaths Meanwhile, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Georgia each has confirmed at least 2,000 novel coronavirus infections, while Colorado, Texas, Connecticut, Tennessee and Ohio each has confirmed at least 1,000 cases. The figures include 21 people aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship and 49 repatriated citizens. 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  • Joseph Maldonado-Passage seems made for reality TV. The one-time Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate and former wildlife park owner, known to fans by the moniker “Joe Exotic,” is a self-described “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.” A tiger breeder, he had his own YouTube channel, JoeExoticTV, on which he used to post footage of his wild exploits. His reality today is much different. Maldonado-Passage, 57, is currently serving a 22-year federal prison sentence for two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. According to federal prison records, Maldonado-Passage is currently housed at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth. Maldonado-Passage’s crimes are on full display in “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a seven-episode limited series on Netflix that chronicles how Maldonado-Passage went from freedom in the wild to behind bars in a federal prison in Texas. The streaming service describes the series as “a jaw-dropping true tale of con artists, polygamy, rivalry and revenge.” Netflix’s description of the documentary’s star is similar: A “mulleted, gun-toting polygamist and country western singer who presides over an Oklahoma roadside zoo.” Watch Netflix’s trailer for “Tiger King” below. “Charismatic but misguided, Joe and an unbelievable cast of characters including drug kingpins, conmen and cult leaders all share a passion for big cats, and the status and attention their dangerous menageries garner,” the description states. “But things take a dark turn when Carole Baskin, an animal activist and owner of a big cat sanctuary, threatens to put them out of business, stoking a rivalry that eventually leads to Joe’s arrest for a murder-for-hire plot, and reveals a twisted tale where the only thing more dangerous than a big cat is its owner.” Maldonado-Passage is in prison for hiring someone to kill Baskin. 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Baskin was the main subject of a podcast by Wondery for its series, “Over My Dead Body.” More Hollywood fodder about Maldonado-Passage and Baskin is on the way. Vanity Fair reported that comedian and actress Kate McKinnon has signed up to star in and executive produce a limited series based on that podcast. McKinnon is slated to portray Baskin. Maldonado-Passage’s role has not yet been cast, though Vanity Fair’s article said this: “Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are thumb-wrestling to see whose agent gets to reach out about playing Joe Exotic, while David Spade is crafting a really, really long text to McKinnon about their shared SNL ties.” Actor Dax Shepard also has thrown his hat into the ring. “If I don’t get cast as Joe Exotic in the eventual biopic, Hollywood is broken,” Shepard tweeted. Edward Norton replied: “Um, step aside, pal. You’re way too young and buff and you know it.” Netflix U.S. also replied to Shepard’s tweet. “I’m liking what I’m hearing,” the tweet said. 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Not everyone is thrilled by the series, particularly Baskin, who used her rescue’s website to refute the lies she alleges are included in the documentary. One of the more salacious bombshells: a suggestion that Baskin had a hand in the disappearance of her husband, Don Lewis, more than two decades ago. “When the directors of the Netflix documentary Tiger King came to us five years ago, they said they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive,” Baskin says in her rebuttal. “There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the docuseries not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” she writes. “As part of that (goal), it has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don 21 years ago.” According to People magazine, Don Lewis, 59, vanished in August 1997 and was never seen again. His car was found abandoned at an airport and, according to The Charley Project, the keys were on the floorboard. The Florida Crime Information Center still has Jack Donald Lewis, who vanished Aug. 8, 1997, listed as a missing person out of Hillsborough County. At the time of his disappearance, authorities said he may have traveled to Costa Rica. Lewis’ oldest child, Donna Pettis, told People in 1998 that his family believed Baskin was involved in his disappearance. Baskin feeding his body to big cats would be “a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” Pettis told the magazine. “We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.” Baskin refutes the “absurd claims” about her husband and writes that Lewis was showing signs of mental deterioration for a couple of years before he vanished. She said he had begun hoarding vehicles and other equipment on the 40 acres where the sanctuary sits. “He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was,” she writes. “Back then Alzheimer’s was not a commonly used word.” Click here to read all of Baskin’s statement refuting the claims made in the documentary. “The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims,” she writes. “They did not care about truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.” Another character in the series who has disputed his portrayal is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Antle’s safari was recently raided by police, according to The Washington Post. The Myrtle Beach Sun News reported that a former employee of Antle’s accuses him on the series of running his business like a cult. Antle responded to the negative portrayal on Instagram. “It is important to understand that this series is not a documentary; it’s sensationalized entertainment with paid participants,” Antle alleges. “‘Tiger King’ is the bizarre story of Joe and Carole and their feud. These characters are not representative of experts in the wildlife sector or world-class facilities like ours here in Myrtle Beach. “Myrtle Beach Safari has been recognized by the state of South Carolina as one of the preeminent wildlife facilities in the United States. We’ve also received international accolades for the critical role we provide with our qualified, captive breeding programs and our global conservation efforts of threatened and endangered species.” Crimes behind the docuseries Federal authorities and court records give a detailed look into the crimes that sent Maldonado-Passage, of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, to prison. Maldonado-Passage, who also goes by the name Joseph Allen Schreibvogel, had an ongoing dispute with Baskin stemming from her criticism of his wildlife center’s care, exhibition and breeding practices for big cats like lions and tigers. Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary based out of Tampa, Florida. “Until 2011, the dispute was carried on primarily through traditional and social media,” a November 2018 indictment in the case reads. That year, Baskin filed a civil lawsuit against Maldonado-Passage. The Tampa Bay Times reported that, in retaliation for Baskin’s outreach efforts to stop people from booking his traveling petting zoo, Maldonado-Passage had renamed the attraction “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.” The trademark infringement suit in February 2013 resulted in a judgment against Maldonado-Passage, requiring him to pay Baskin more than $1 million. She and her sanctuary have never received any of the money. By January 2012, Maldonado-Passage’s criticism of Baskin turned to threats of violence, including threats on Facebook and YouTube. According to an interview Baskin did with the Times, the threats included a video Maldonado-Passage made of himself shooting a blow-up doll dressed to look like her. He also produced an image of Baskin hanging in effigy, the newspaper reported. In early November 2017, Maldonado-Passage began trying to hire a hit man to travel to Florida and kill Baskin, the indictment says. On Nov. 6, the supposed hit man traveled from Oklahoma to Dallas to get fake identification for use when traveling to Florida. Later that month, Maldonado-Passage mailed the man’s cellphone to Nevada to conceal the proposed gunman’s involvement in the plot. That same day, Nov. 25, Maldonado-Passage gave the man $3,000 he had received in the sale of a big cat to the man as payment for Baskin’s murder, the indictment says. Thousands more would be paid once the job was complete. That plot never materialized. The Times reported last year that the would-be killer ran off with the money and never made it to Florida. Jurors at Maldonado-Passage’s trial also heard that, beginning in July 2016, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly asked a second witness to kill Baskin or to help him find someone who would. The person he went to that time went to authorities and arranged a December 2017 meeting with a supposed hit man. The hit man was an undercover FBI agent. “The jury heard a recording of his meeting with the agent to discuss details of the planned murder,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Oklahoma.
  • Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order earlier this week that requires anyone flying to Florida from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey to self-isolate for 14 days. Now, the Nassau County Board of Commissioners has finalized an order that requires anyone driving from N.Y., N.J. and C.T. to self-isolate for 14 days and let the health department and hotels know before they arrive.  Action News Jax was at the Florida Welcome Center in Nassau County just south of the Fla.-Ga. and found several license plates from N.Y. and N.J.  “I think it’s a good idea,” said Trina Hebert, who recently helped her brother escape the COVID-19 outbreak in N.Y. “It’s the only way we’re going to end this. It’s the only way it’s going to stop.”  The restrictions will apply retroactively to people who arrived in Nassau from Monday, March 23 through today.
  • The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is doing everything possible to make sure customers are not at risk amid the coronavirus outbreak. The latest precaution is being implemented today. JTA has started blocking off seats on buses to ensure social distancing. “We know that this is a little inconvenient at times, but we’re doing this with the goal of keeping everyone as safe as possible,” says JTA spokesman David Cawton. Cawton says they’ll block off up to 18 seats on JTA buses that have the highest number of riders. The seats that are blocked have special signage to promote the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help people slow down the spread of the virus. “This will reduce the capacity on board a bus and increase social distancing,” Cawton says. The modified bus schedule JTA put in place March 17 will continue until further notice. Cawton says JTA has also decided to delay the opening of the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center at LaVilla. It was supposed to open Monday, but the Rosa Parks Transit Station will be the hub for JTA buses for now. “Once we get a better control on this whole pandemic, then will be an opportunity to welcome everyone into that facility,” Cawton says.

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