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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