Investigators question crew fatigue, conduct on El Faro

The final hearing session of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation working the El Faro sinking wasted no time as it began Monday, questioning a former Chief Mate and Master of the ship on some of the past problems among the crew on board and whether fatigue is a factor in how they operated.

Through prior hearing sessions, we've learned El Faro was being watched by the company operating the vessel because of a "cluster" of incidents. The Coast Guard was also preparing to increase oversight of the vessel because of a few issues on board.

FULL COVERAGE:  El Faro sinking

Captain Raymond Thompson was directly involved in at least two incidents of issue. One involved a crew member who was under the influence and trying to get back on the ship. Thompson says El Faro’s Master sent him to deal with it, but when he got to the gate, he didn’t see the crew member there. Thompson says he told a security guard and taxi driver at the gate to remind the crew member that he had some time before he had to be back on board. TOTE has a zero-tolerance policy, according to Thompson. The other issue he characterized as a minor argument between the Second Mate and a crew member, because the crew member was woken for an “all hands” call and reported without a piece of safety gear. The crew member talked back to the Second Mate when she told him to get the equipment.

Thompson was also questioned about other incidents that he didn’t have much to say about, including “drama” that led to a prior El Faro Master resigning and a “divide and conquer” plan that a company official was mapping out for the Chief Mate who followed behind Thompson.

Overall, Thompson says his experience with El Faro’s crew was good.  An attorney with TOTE walked Thompson through talking about several instances of crew training and safety meetings. He says those would have included the Captain talking specifically about heavy weather situations.

GALLERY:  NTSB footage of El Faro's wreckage

El Faro's Voyage Data Recorder transcript showed that the crew was reluctant to report any questions or concerns during safety meetings, because of potential blowback. Thompson says that's not something he's ever experienced. Investigators questioned him to determine whether a crew member could report a potential problems while at sea, in confidence. He says they would be able to use a satellite phone, but that would likely require the Captain's permission and also be conducted on the bridge, where other people are present. The other reporting option would be through email, also on the bridge. Thompson says other people would be able to see the message that was sent, though, unless it was deleted- in which case there would likely be some kind of notification still left behind.

The transcript also showed that one crew member talked about using sleep medicine on board. That led to a lengthy exchange on crew fatigue. This was highlighted by another discussion captured on the VDR recording, where crew members talk about an officer who had fallen asleep on watch and wasn't going to face any repercussions.

“There was no discussion that you’re aware of about, ‘let’s sharpen up our oversight of fatigue because a senior ship officer is falling asleep on watch at sea?” asked MBI member Keith Fawcett.

“I didn’t see fatigue as being an issue,” Thompson replied.

Crew work and rest hours are tracked, and Thomson did say that has been changed- with them using a software now instead of a form.

NTSB: Breaking down their independent factual reports

Potential fatigue on behalf of the Captain was also called in to question, specifically the impact on his decision making. Captain Michael Davidson twice changed the course of El Faro in order to skirt around Hurricane Joaquin, but he also declined two other recommendations from the crew for further alterations. One of the recommendations came from the crew member on watch on the bridge, who called the Captain while he was resting.

“Since the Third Mate woke up the Captain to have this discussion, I want talk more about fatigue. It makes me question whether the Captain actually woke up sufficiently to have that conversation,” says MBI member Commander Matthew Denning.

Thompson says he was frequently woken by crew while serving as Master, and never had a problem being alert enough to address what was needed.  The attorney for Davidson's widow questioned Thompson to show Davidson was always willing to pick up more watch shifts in order to give his crew more rest, if needed.

The attorney for Davidson’s widow, William Bennett, took it further- walking through the VDR transcript hour-by-hour with Thompson to show that Davidson was frequently on the bridge and discussing the weather and their planning for it. That planning, however, was based on erratic forecasting.

“Captain, I thank you for your time, but it appears that your exercise that we did here simply establishes the fact that this is 20-20, and that, as the Master of a ship, there are a multitude of things you have to assess in making course changes,” Bennett says.

In addition to pointing out conversations captured by the VDR, Bennett highlighted that there were likely conversations with crew in other parts of the ship that weren’t documented. He also read an email from Davidson which explained that he had made course adjustments and expected to get to San Juan a little late, but that he believed they would be able to skirt around to the south of the storm, based on forecast data.

WOKV is at the two-week MBI hearing session. Get instant updates on Twitter.

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