Loss of lube oil pressure probed in El Faro sinking investigation

During the same portion of the investigation where the likely sequence of how El Faro sank was detailed, we're now also getting a clearer idea of the events that may have led to the ship's mechanical problems.

Multiple witnesses spoke Monday about the impact of lube oil on the ship's engine operations, and the fallout on that as the result of a sustained list. El Faro is believed to have been listing some 15 degrees before sinking, killing all 33 people on board.

FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico Director of Operations Lee Peterson says intermittent sounding of the lube oil pressure alarm is not in itself concerning. If it stays intermittent, the ship could still have enough pressure to operate.

“The worry for the engineering staff is, this is not something that normally happens, so it’s going to get their attention as to why it’s happening,” says Peterson, who was TOTE Services Director of Safety and Marine Operations at the time of the sinking.

The impact of the sustained list depends largely on the level in the lube oil sump. Testimony presented to the Board says El Faro was able to operated anywhere between 18 and 33 inches.  An analysis conducted by the Marine Safety Center at the request of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation shows that, at 18 inches, a 15 degree list could mean a complete loss of suction. It's not believed El Faro was that low on what would become her final departure, although the engineering logs are lost with the ship. Readings from earlier in the month show the level between 25 and 26 inches. Following a question from an MBI member, Peterson says putting more oil in the system before heading out in heavy weather could have helped.

If, in fact, there was a total loss of pressure, Peterson says there wouldn’t have been much time.

“Eventually, you’re going to start destroying your pump, not having any lubrication in there,” he says.

While it's unclear what lube oil sump level El Faro was at on her final voyage, further testimony showed a "non-standard drop" in the level in July, about three inches during one watch shift. TOTE Services Port Engineer Tim Neeson says it's "probable" that was the result of a loss in the seal of the lube oil purifier- a mechanical issue that wasn't caught. No record confirming that has been presented, but Neeson says he wouldn't expect to have been told about it.

Neeson has never heard of a problem with lube oil on a vessel like El Faro while the ship was underway. Upon questioning from a TOTE Incorporated attorney, Neeson said he believed handling that type of issue would be “second nature” for engineers.

GALLERY: Inside the MBI third hearing session

Despite some comments from the Captain that were captured by the ship's Voyage Data Recorder, Peterson doesn't think El Faro lost one or both or her boilers, believing that would have impacted power as well.

Another portion of the VDR transcript shows that, not long before the sinking, engineers were "blowing tubes"- basically clearing soot from an engine room component, which requires the ship to slow down. It's a routine and scheduled procedure, but Peterson questions whether it should have been postponed.

“Given the circumstances, I don’t know that it would have been a priority. I’m not sure there was anything wrong with doing it at the time. I found it surprising too, it wasn’t something I would have expected,” he says.

Neeson confirmed that the procedure doesn't risk ship operations, and that it's the Chief Engineer's discretion on whether to perform the procedure.

He also told investigators it’s a “valid possibility” the fire main ruptured, based on information from the VDR transcript. He also said, while cargo wouldn’t generally pose a risk to the emergency fire pump sea chest suction piping, it’s possible the bobbing cars indicated in the VDR could have worked their way over to the area and caused damage. Loose cargo or rigging could also have impacted the ability of the bilge alarm to sound.

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

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