NTSB: Few dispute El Faro sinking was "colossal failure" in management

TOTE exec calls the loss an accident

A “colossal failure” in management.

It's how the NTSB's Investigator-In-Charge of the El Faro sinking investigation led questioning on the incident directed toward a top official within TOTE Incorporated Thursday. Despite that, the TOTE rep says what happened was truly an accident.

TOTE Inc. Executive Vice President Peter Keller spent much of his testimony to the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation speaking about the customer-centric, safety-oriented focus he has tried to build within the company. Part of that, in his own definition, included holding management and leadership responsible for any breakdown in operations.

“Now sir, many would argue and few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faro and its cargo, and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard the El Faro represents a colossal failure in the management of the companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro. As you stated, the proof is in the pudding. And sir, you have no doubt thought long and hard about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro and its crew. Could you please share with this Board your thoughts about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro,” asked NTSB Investigator-In-Charge Tom Roth-Roffy.

“I think this tragic loss is all about an accident, and I look to this Board, as well as the NTSB, to try to define what those elements may or may not have been. I, for one, with 51 years of experience in transportation, cannot come up with a rational answer. I do not see anything that has come out of this hearing or anything else that I’ve ever seen that would talk about a cause. Certainly, as management, we look for that, we look for what the NTSB and this Board may come up with because we think it will be important. At this point in time, I, for one, cannot identify any failure that would have led to that tragic event,” Keller responded.

AUDIO: Hear the exchange between Roth-Roffy and Keller

The dozen or so El Faro crew family members sitting just off to the side behind Keller could be seen bowing their heads and covering their eyes by the time he was done with his response.

Derek Davis, the son of crew member Larry Davis, left during a recess and returned with pudding cups to hand out at the end of the hearing day. He tells WOKV they’re “proof in the pudding” cups to “celebrate” TOTE standing by their record.

During Friday’s session, before the two week hearing session concluded, Roth-Roffy took time to apologize for how the question was worded.

“My intent was to give Mr. Keller the opportunity to express his views on the role of TOTE management in the accident and what may have happened relating to the cause of the accident. It was not to accuse the TOTE companies of management system errors,” he says.

He added that the NTSB has not made any conclusion about the role of anyone in connection to the sinking, and their investigation still continues and will be thorough and unbiased.  Lawyers for TOTE thanked Roth-Roffy for the statement.

Prior to the Thursday exchange, Keller spoke at length about the corporate reorganization among TOTE Inc and its sister companies- including the El Faro's owner TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and operator TOTE Services. He says the result was more streamlined staff and operations and consolidated knowledge. When the Board questioned whether there were still enough shore side resources devoted to operations at sea, Keller says that is their priority.

“Everything we do, we do with safety in mind. It makes no sense to have good customer relations, it makes no sense to have an efficient terminal, it makes no sense to handle a lot of cargo if you can’t do it safely,” he says.

Keller was chiefly involved with the launching of the new TOTE ships- Isla Bella and Perla Del Caribe- and gave new insight in to the El Faro's roll in the larger LNG project. While we've heard previous testimony that El Faro was preparing to transfer to Alaskan trade, Keller says that was going to be done to relieve a different vessel that needed a dry dock period. The El Faro could only leave for that, however, when the Isla Bella joined the Puerto Rico trade route, because the company still had to handle the same amount of cargo on that route.

The delivery of Isla Bella was delayed several weeks after a problem found during sea trials, ultimately launching just a week or two ahead of the El Faro sinking. The Board did not ask what the Isla Bella’s original delivery date was supposed to be, and whether without the additional dry dock period the El Faro would have still been in service on the trade.

She was heavily loaded when she went down in Hurricane Joaquin. Keller says the ships normally carried a large load and TOTE temporarily had barges brought over to supplement the cargo boost they got when a competitor closed up shop. The new ships are designed with a larger capacity.

The CGMBI continues through this week and there will be another session called for the future after the NTSB mission to recover the El Faro's Voyage Data Recorder, which was found on the ocean floor but requires special salvage equipment. Following the third hearing session, the CGMBI will issue findings, as they work to prevent something like this from happening again.

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