Former El Faro crew member details "real world" of shipboard safety culture

Sinking investigation focuses on case around Chief Mate who fell asleep on watch

Through the investigation of the El Faro sinking, there have been questions about how the crew was trained to report any problems and if they were able to do that anonymously at sea.

Now, we're getting a closer look at how a report of a potentially major safety concern was handled by the ship's owner and operator, and the concerns the man who reported it all has about how things worked.

“I lost pretty much my whole brotherhood behind something that could have been prevented," says Former El Faro Able-Bodied Seaman Marvin Hearman III.

We've heard reference so far during this Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearing session about a ship's officer falling asleep while on watch. El Faro's Voyage Data Recorder, or black box, captured a conversation between two crew members about a former El Yunque Chief Mate who, while on watch on El Faro, had fallen asleep. The crew members made references to not believing there had been any punishment, according to the VDR transcript.

It turns out that Chief Mate was demoted, and the company did investigate- although they were skeptical at the start.

Captain John Lawrence, TOTE Services Director of Fleet Safety, says he got a text message from an unknown El Faro crew member with photos of a man sitting on a stool sleeping. There were two instances, apparently on different days because the person in the photo was wearing different clothes. He says the reporting crew member was being “fairly uncooperative”, only sporadically communicating and unwilling to talk on the phone or communicate through email.

“So I finally gave him a few ultimatums, saying listen, you can tell me who you are, what you want me to follow up on this, basically let me know what you’re going to do, but I’m not going to continue this game of texting back and forth and getting partial answers unless you’re serious about wanting me to look in to this. He finally gave up, if I remember correctly, at that point,” Lawrence says.

That crew member, Hearman, has now identified himself to the whole MBI, and he says the fact that Lawrence seemed more concerned about who he was than the problem he was reporting was concerning for him. He told investigators he was the watch partner for that Chief Mate, and had woken him up several times, even pulling him to the side to warn him that he needed to be alert while on watch.

“Any chance he gets, he’ll go to sleep. He’s a sleeper,” says Hearman.

He says when he came forward, it was on behalf of other crew members who also knew what was happening and had collectively compiled dozens of photos of the officer sleeping on watch.

Lawrence did take the photos up the chain in the company command, and after internal discussions, they decided to have Human Resources and the head of Labor Relations and Crewing address the matter with El Faro’s Captain. We’re told the officer in question admitted what happened.

An email from Lawrence to another company executive in July 2015 shows some of the reason he was initially cautious with the complaint, noting it was unclear when the photos were taken and whether, in fact, the officer was on watch, as opposed to visiting the bridge during another person’s watch. He further raised questions, though, about the crew member who made the complaint, who he believed at the time had been terminated from the company

“Crew member taking picture, showed own irresponsibility of duties and lack of safety by not waking the watch officer, if the case. Crew member taking picture. Makes me feel we should not be allowing personal cell phones while on watch. Many of our vessels have policy. Company policy does not allow taking pictures of other crew members. Says he told other crew members,” the email says, as read by MBI Member Keith Fawcett during the hearing session.

Questioning from Fawcett appeared to indicate they believed someone else had sent the photos, but Hearman says he used an app to send the messages, in order to mask his number.

Fawcett further questioned whether part of the company's investigation looked at work/rest hours to determine if fatigue could have contributed to the Chief Mate falling asleep on watch. Lawrence says he didn't, and he's not sure if anyone else did. There was also no medical exam performed to determine if there was any condition which contributed to officer falling asleep. Lawrence says the officer didn't request it, and admitted what happened.

“In your opinion, did the safety management system work by virtue of a crew member reporting something directly to you that was a problem and was ultimately corrected,” asked TOTE Inc attorney Luke Reid.

“That’s correct, yes it did,” Lawrence responded.

Hearman believes that if he were the one who had been caught sleeping, he would have been fired. He also feared repercussion for reporting problems. That was highlighted after Fawcett laid out information about federal whistleblower protections, before asking Hearman how those are working.

“You’ve shipped for some time, and what’s the real world? What’s your feeling about the real world- if you make a report to the Coast Guard, for example, about a safety deficiency,” Fawcett asked.

“I’m gunna be honest, you’re gunna get fired. If you call the Coast Guard, the Designated Person, all of them guys, you’re gunna get fired,” Hearman responded.

A TOTE attorney questioned Hearman on why it took him so long to send the pictures- the first one was from months prior to his initial communication with Lawrence. The attorney further questioned whether he was using the photos as revenge following a dispute with the Chief Mate. Hearman says it was the culmination of many things, including that two Captains on El Faro- including Captain Michael Davidson, who was the Master at the time of the sinking- caught the Chief Mate sleeping and scolded him, but it didn’t seem to change his behaviors.

Hearman says reporting the incident bred hostility on board the ship, which added to an existing divide between officers and the unlicensed crew. He cited several other incidents which involved different arguments and disputes, adding that how TOTE handled crewing the new class of vessels they were rolling out led to some issues between crew members as well, specifically with tension between those that were selected for the new ship and those who were not. Despite the tension among the crew, Hearman says Davidson was intelligent, and one of the best Captains he worked for in terms of answering questions and addressing problems.

“Captain Davidson, he was pretty much more like if you wanted to know something you can learn, if you’ve got a question, he will give you an answer,” Hearman says

On of the many incidents referenced by Hearman was when a dog alerted to his room. TOTE then expanded on that, describing a Customs and Border Protection dog alerting to drugs in his stateroom. Hearman immediately disputed the claim, saying the alert was retribution for his contacting the DPA and the other issues on the ship. He told the Board he took a drug test that came back negative. Hearman’s union lodged a grievance, which TOTE says was withdrawn after they provided evidence on the search. Hearman than got an attorney to lodge a formal claim, but that attorney later indicated they didn’t have anything to move forward with. TOTE further says they have a decision from the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which they were going to file in to evidence.

It's not the first time there have been allegations of drug activity on a TOTE vessel discussed at these hearing sessions. During the second phase, investigators presented information about alleged drug smuggling that resulted in the arrest of some crew members from El Morro, one of El Faro's sister ships.

This testimony is the latest in what has been a lengthy examination of the safety management system and safety culture on El Faro and other TOTE vessels. Investigators have questioned life boat and fire drills, safety meetings, work/rest hours, complacency, and more.

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

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