Based on photos of El Faro’s lifeboats, it’s unlikely either of them were able to launch before the ship sank, according to an official with Palfinger Marine.
And even if they had, the odds were stacked against the crew.
“I can’t think of any scenario of survivability coming out of hurricane conditions,” says Palfinger Marine Operations Director for the Americas Tio Devaney, when asked if he had seen a successful abandon ship in conditions like El Faro was facing.
He testified to the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation probing the sinking by walking through various pictures of the lifeboats pulled from the water, and speaking to the extensive damage they experienced.
Devaney says the damage to the side of the lifeboats indicates, to him, that neither were able to launch. Instead, the damage likely came from El Faro herself, or later, from the sea, when the lifeboats were ripped from their rigging.
“If you were in a hurricane conditions and forced to abandon ship from about 96 to 112 knots of wind, would you recommend abandoning ship in an open lifeboat or a life raft, why and why not,” asked NTSB Investigator Jon Furukawa.
“My first choice would be to stay with the ship, and the reason is, there have been a lot of studies done within the IMO and the industry alike to design ships so that they would become their own best lifeboat,” Devaney says.
Asked whether there’s anything that could have helped the crew survive, Devaney says a lot depends on the Captain call to abandon ship, and the ship overall.
“The first thing could have been, maybe, the vessel not being there, but if we were to take that approach then all global trade would stop. The life of a seafarer is a challenging one,” he says.
El Faro also had life rafts on board, and the ship's Voyage Data Recorder captured the Captain's order to put the life rafts in the water, but Devaney believes those would have been incredibly difficult to load in to with the weather and sea conditions El Faro was experiencing.
Speaking more broadly on the style of lifeboat El Faro had, Devaney says the open design, conventional davit launch is not as survivable as more modern, enclosed lifeboats or freefall launch life boats. While regulations in the 80s shifted to the enclosed design, El Faro's age allowed her to keep the older lifeboats.
In his career, Devaney says he’s only investigated one freefall lifeboat incident or accident, and it didn’t involve an injury. He has had four conventional launch warnings in the last few months alone
Devaney says upgrading one lifeboat and the required rigging could cost a half-million dollars.
We've previously learned through the MBI hearing sessions that El Faro had some work done on the lifeboat system just ahead of leaving on what would become her final departure, but it was never fully surveyed by the American Bureau of Shipping. An official with the ship's owner/operator says he forgot to notify the surveyor of the work, and the technician who performed the repair later confirmed the repair itself wasn't fully surveyed, because the dock-side boat wasn't tested. Devaney told the Board that, in his time as a surveyor, he would use his discretion about the safety of testing, adding that surveyors don't always launch lifeboats to test these things out.
Safety and survivability was once again the theme of the hearing session Wednesday. A former El Faro Polish riding crew member told investigators that he hadn't been involved in safety meetings or lifeboat drills while on board, nor did he know where he was supposed to respond in the event of an emergency. He says there was no formal training, which is a contradiction to the testimony the MBI has heard until this point.
NOAA's Principal SARSAT System Engineer Mickey Fitzmaurice further spoke about a different piece of survival gear- the ship's emergency beacon. An analysis he presented to the MBI showed that El Faro's EPIRB alerted for 24 minutes, and he wasn't sure why it stopped. In that time, a satellite did pick up the beacon, but because it's not GPS encoded, the alert came through as "unlocated". The positioning of the other satellites were such that they were not able to ultimately get a location reading off the beacon.
Fitzmaurice says there was an experimental program operating at the time of the sinking, and analyzing the data after the fact, he believes that program would have been able to locate the beacon. That experimental program has since been launched.
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