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Lifeboat system repairs weren't fully tested ahead of El Faro's final departure

Repairs on the El Faro’s lifeboat system just ahead of her final departure weren’t surveyed, and now we’ve learned they weren’t fully tested either.

During a February session of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation in to the sinking of El Faro, a TOTE Port Engineer testified that he didn’t notify the ship’s surveyor, the American Bureau of Shipping, about work that was being done to the lifeboat winches September 28-29. He said it was an oversight, but that the repairs were something the company was doing voluntary.

Harding Safety Incorporated Field Service Engineer Bruce Wagner told the Board Thursday that the repairs were actually the result of a leak noted in an annual survey done by the company just about two months before.

The focus was the system used to lower the lifeboats. Wagner says he didn’t necessarily feel like the work needed to be surveyed by ABS.

“If it’s a major repair or something of that nature, we would usually have the regulatory body there to check it over. If it’s just part swap or something of that nature, parts renewal, I usually just get with the ship staff- the officers to be more specific- and just make sure they’re happy. Run through and answer any questions, run through the mechanics of it, operations, what have you, to where the customer is happy, and that would be it,” he says.

During the February session, ABS says this work would be classified as something they would have to review- with the responsibility to notify them falling on TOTE.

Wagner says he ran a lot of testing on the repair work, but only lowered one of the lifeboats down. The winch for the other- which was the side up against the dock- was tested while the boat was in a stowed position. He says it’s not safe to test the dock-side boat while the vessel is in port, so typically they would have the ship move and anchor or test it while heading out.

“Would you normally have lowered both vessels down a substantial distance to check the working action of the breaks as part of your process,” questioned Board Member Keith Fawcett.

”Yes, sir,” Wagner replied.

”The fact that the vessel was getting ready to sail- did that influence someone saying to you, ‘hey, let’s wrap it up, its time to go’, or was it your decision just to operate the one boat down the side of the ship,” Fawcett followed.

”The boat which I did lower was Monday, so it was the day before. I had wrapped up the job, they were still over the dock, so I guess it would be a matter of convenience of them sailing and me getting off the ship to where the process didn’t happen,” Wagner said.

When questioned by Board Chair Captain Jason Neubauer, Wagner further said it would be Harding Safety policy to have tested both lifeboats, and that proof of both being lowered would have likely been required for the repairs to be certified.

Wagner says he didn’t see any obvious signs of other corrosion to the winches and davits, but that would have been more closely examined in the annual survey- which he didn’t do. He did tell the Board that the repair work he was doing was slow moving because of the age of the parts and their exposure to the elements. He had actually been asked if he would be able to depart with El Faro if the repairs didn’t wrap up in time- although he didn’t specify who made that request.

Despite one of the boats not being lowered, Wagner says he is still confident in the work that was done. In fact, he says the lifeboats could be lowered even if the ship were listing 20 degrees. During the Captain's final communication with the shore, he said they were listing 15 degrees.

WOKV will continue to monitor the CGMBI. Get instant updates on Twitter.

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