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

Former El Faro crew member details 'real world' of shipboard safety culture
Photo Credit: US Coast Guard exhibit

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

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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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. 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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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