El Faro's sister ship highlights potential inspection protocol problems

Surveyor says El Faro's boiler could have faced "catastrophic failure"

As the American Bureau of Shipping continues to draw the line on their responsibility over El Faro, the history of her sister ship is highlighting some of the biggest potential concerns.

“It’s the owner’s responsibility to maintain the vessel. The rules and regulations set minimum standards, but overall, it’s the owners responsibility to maintain the condition of the vessel to those rules and standards,” says ABS Assistant Chief of Surveys for the Americas Division Lou O’Donnell.

He was called in front of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation for the second time through the course of these public hearing sessions to help further delineate the goals and responsibilities ABS believes exist under the Alternate Compliance Program. ACP is the special inspection program that was over El Faro and is still used for many other commercial vessels, allowing class societies like ABS to do inspection work on behalf of the Coast Guard.

GALLERY: Inside the third MBI hearing session

O'Donnell's testimony Friday raised questions about whether El Faro's owner, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, reported everything they should have, specifically dealing with El Faro's sister ship El Yunque.

The Board says an email from July 2015 from El Yunque’s Chief Engineer talked about the port lifeboat engine being full of water. While the questioning and testimony never explicitly stated whether that had been reported to the Coast Guard and ABS, O’Donnell said it would be something that TOTE would be required to report.

“It effects a major pieces of lifesaving equipment,” O’Donnell says.

He says part of the reporting would have required the Captain to also detail alternate steps he was taking to ensure the crew had access to similar lifesaving gear, until the needed repair work could take place.

Board Member Keith Fawcett says the water may have been the result of a test performed on the lifeboat davit system, where the boat was filled with water to add weight. O'Donnell says he would have expected the owner to take precautions to prevent that from happening.

MBI Chair Captain Jason Neubauer presented information about a photo taken inside of a supply fan blister on El Yunque, which showed two drainage holes that were about seven inches by six inches. Neubauer says, according to the ship’s plan, the holes should have been one inch in diameter. While O’Donnell hadn’t approved the plan, he said if it holds to Neubauer’s description, than the holes would have been considered an “unapproved modification”, and those could have created a downflooding concern.

Neubauer says the MBI has documentation that shows the holes were in place in 2014 when El Yunque was in a drydock period. O’Donnell confirms it’s something ABS would have been responsible for catching.

Underwater footage from a survey of El Faro’s wreckage appears to show corresponding holes on El Faro were the one inch diameter, according to Neubauer. The most recent report on the openings on the ship- a special ABS document on a survey and report of load lines- could not be found for El Faro specifically. ABS says this form, an LL-11-D, was generated at ship construction and then updated in 1993 when the ship was extended. While O’Donnell found notes indicating the new form’s existence, the original is kept on the ship. ABS keeps another copy in their files, but El Faro’s was lost during some sort of scanning issue when ABS went digital, according to prior testimony.

GALLERY: El Faro's wreckage

Still another area of questioning showed how ABS could require an owner to investigate a serious issue, under a certain requirement under the International Association of Class Society procedures.

“The PR 17 is a driver to report to the recognized organization who’s doing the management system certification that there could be a possible failure in that safety management system, thereby forcing the owner to do an investigation in to that report, and then respond back to that recognized organization that issues the safety management system certificate,” O’Donnell says.

ABS had issued two PR 17s for El Yunque, one of which dealt with problems with the fire suppression system.

The condition of El Yunque’s vent trunks has been frequently questioned through this hearing session, but O’Donnell says there was no PR 17 specifically for that. The problem started when “extreme wastage” was found in one of her vent trunks, and repairs were ordered for that, but ABS cleared the other ones. Just a few months later, when El Yunque was in drydock to be converted to the Alaskan trade, the Coast Guard found what they determined to be “long term” wastage on other vent trunks.

O’Donnell says they didn’t issue a PR 17 for the initial vent trunk situation because repairs were made immediately.

“So that would mean that you did not see the conditions found to be a symptom of the SMS failure.” Neubauer asked.

“Not at that time,” O’Donnell responded.

He couldn’t speculate on whether he believed the wastage in the other vent trunks would have existed for more than one survey cycle. El Yunque is now being scrapped, instead of being transitioned to a new route.

FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking

While O'Donnell says his surveyors and the local Coast Guard sectors have a good relationship, and they're continually working to improve communication, O'Donnell did dispute some of the claims from the Coast Guard's Chief of Traveling Inspectors earlier in the week, including his concerns about a certain pressure test not being pushed following a repair to a component of El Faro's boilers. The ABS surveyor in that case previously told investigators that it's her discretion how to run the test, and she was concerned pushing the test would create an unsafe situation because of the age of the boiler. O'Donnell says the surveyor is good and detailed, and that he trusts her judgement.

The Chief of Traveling Inspectors, Captain David Flaherty, also conducted an investigation of ACP because of concerns from his staff. While Flaherty’s report hasn’t been made public yet, an ABS attorney read a portion today dealing with his recommendations. According to the reading, Flaherty is recommending ABS not perform class society work and work on behalf of the Coast Guard during the same trip on board a vessel. O’Donnell believes that would defeat the purpose of ACP, which is supposed to reduce duplicated efforts.

As with other witnesses, O'Donnell was also asked to use his expertise to help investigators interpret some of the information that was captured on El Faro's Voyage Data Recorder, or black box. O'Donnell was invited by the NTSB to be a part of the team that transcribed the VDR.

Specifically, O'Donnell was asked- in his experience- if there is any potential concerns with a steam boiler in a flooding situation.

“If the boiler was hot and it was shocked with cold water, it could possibly have had a catastrophic failure, boiler explosion maybe,” O’Donnell says.

He says, based on his knowledge in the industry and the crew conversations, he believes the engine room was busy, but facing significant challenges.

“If the vessel was inclined and they couldn’t get lube oil pressure, they would have needed lube oil pressure to be able to open the throttles to get propulsion on the vessel,” he says.

El Faro had lost propulsion before sinking in Hurricane Joaquin, and the VDR captured the Captain saying they "lost the plant". We know the ship had taken on water and was listing, with investigators hearing a report earlier this week about the "likely" series of events that led to the ship going down.

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

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