Former El Faro Chief Engineer: "They were doing everything they could to hold on"

He had sailed in heavy weather before, but never with a sustained list and no propulsion.

“You had a lot of good people trying to do whatever it took to get this thing going and getting out of harm’s way,” says former El Faro Chief Engineer Mark Gay.

Gay was called in front of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation working the El Faro sinking to help give some context to the crew conversations captured by the ship's Voyage Data Recorder, or black box. This third hearing session is the first time the MBI has had this transcript, with the device pulled from the ship's wreckage just a few months ago.

GALLERY: El Faro wreckage

Because there is a lot of conversation that investigators weren’t able to transcribe because of audio quality, and because there was only one side of a conversation captured at times, there were some areas that Gay couldn’t expand on.

“They’re doing everything they can in that engine room, I’m sure it was all hands down there,” he says.

One inference he did make, based on the information, is that El Faro's propulsion plant went down. The Captain was heard saying that they lost the plant, and later said engineers were working to get a boiler back up. Considering that, Gay believes the plant the Captain was referring to dealt specifically with propulsion, and not other areas like power.

FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking

Gay walked investigators through the lube oil system arrangement, machinery alarms, bilge system, and other components relating to engineering work on board. Some of that was focused specifically on the ship's vent trunks, which have been a focus since prior testimony from the Coast Guard Chief of Traveling Inspectors showed El Faro's sister ship had severe wastage in her trunks, and a Naval Architect with the Marine Safety Center presented a report saying it's likely water was able to get in through the ship's cargo ventilation system, compounding the flooding on board.

“Generally for as old as the vessel was, they were in pretty decent shape. There were some rust flakes throughout the whole thing, sometimes we did have to manufacture and make new edges to the actual dampener to make sure they would close fully if we needed to, but other than that, it was usually in relatively good state,” Gay says.

GALLERY: Engineering photos from aboard El Faro

Gay also served on El Faro’s two sister ships, and left the company in 2013. He now works as a First Assistant Engineer with Noble Drilling.

The testimony got emotional when Gay was asked about a comment on the VDR showing one of the crew members making light of some of the safety procedures on board. Gay says that was never the case in his experience- that crew always conducted drills and even redid them if there were problems, and that if there was ever some crew complacency shown in safety meetings, he would always work with the Captain to re-engage everyone.

While Gay says he has been in heavy weather before, and he has been on a ship that's rolled as much as thirty degrees, he's never been involved with a sustained list. Investigators believe El Faro was listing about fifteen degrees ahead of her sinking. He says, during a prolonged roll, there would be some alarms sounding, but the issues would generally quickly correct when the ship righted. He was not directly asked the impact if the list was sustained.

“I’ve been in conditions where things have gone wrong in a hurry, and you’ve got to make some quick decisions fact. To me, they were doing everything they could to hold on,” he says.

Gay added that he never had a problem working with the ship's owner- which at the time was Sea Star Line, but later evolved in to TOTE- for safety reasons or otherwise. He says he was always able to get repair parts as needed, and the company accepted the discretion of the ship's Master, like if they had to lengthen one of their trips in order to avoid bad weather.

WOKV continues to follow the MBI. You can get instant updates through the hearing session on Twitter.

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