Jacksonville, FL - The search for answers continues.
The US Coast Guard is convening its second round of Marine Board of Investigation public hearings on the sinking of El Faro, which killed all 33 crew on board. This round will examine shipboard operations, cargo loading, lashing and stowage operations for the accident voyage, the vessel’s forecasted stability, weather conditions forecasted and encountered, and regulatory oversight.
El Faro went down in Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin while transiting between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico in October. Investigators are trying to determine what else contributed to the sinking, in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The first session focused on a broad range of questions from the time leading up to the sinking, including what weather planning took place, what kind of oversight existed, and the qualifications of the Captain and crew. As this next session kicks off, we’re taking a closer look at some of the questions that examination raised.
El Faro maintenance
Because El Faro lost propulsion before going down in Hurricane Joaquin, investigators focused a lot of questions around the condition of the ship’s mechanics. A key part of that was the boilers.
The most recent survey of the boilers showed there was “severe” deterioration, including buckling brickwork and issues with firestops. While the man who surveyed the boilers “highly recommended” extensive work which he said he would have wanted to be addressed immediately, the Port Engineer told investigators that he was given an estimate of about six more months of use.
Upon further questioning, the surveyor said the items he recommended for service are considered “efficiency” items as opposed to critical components, but he added that decreased efficiency could ultimately influence operations overall.
On the last day of the initial hearing, investigators also learned that El Faro had work done on lifeboat winches the same day she left on what would become her final voyage. The American Bureau of Shipping, which is the vessel’s surveyor, says they weren’t told about the work, and would have had to go to the ship to inspect it if they had been notified- which would have likely delayed the departure. While the Port Engineer said the new davits were working after installation, he admitted that not getting them surveyed was “an oversight”.
The davits are a crucial part of raising and lowering the ship’s life boats to a level where they can be accessed by the crew.
A former El Faro Chief Engineer said there were no major repairs outstanding when El Faro left Jacksonville. He said any urgent work was done as needed.
The Alaska conversion
Because the El Faro was preparing to transfer to Alaskan trade when she sank, there was work being done by a Polish riding crew while in transit.
The Port Engineer said the crew was working in the ship’s engine room on the prior trip to the fatal voyage, but may have been on the final leg as well. They were installing a heater, which had to be dropped in through a special “soft patch” that likely hadn’t been opened in years. The Port Engineer told investigators the soft patch was secured again after the heater was dropped through, but he hadn’t actually inspected it himself. He was also the first to confirm that the riding crew was doing work in El Faro’s engine room, although he didn’t believe that had any influence on the ship’s operations or why they lost propulsion.
More of the conversion work would get accomplished during scheduled dry dock periods, as well.
How cargo was loaded and secured was another key question- the El Faro was listing before she sank.
A former El Faro Chief Mate told investigators that they typically left slack in the fuel tanks because they didn’t need that quantity of fuel for their trip. He acknowledged that full tanks would have increased stability, but said they programmed the slack in to their cargo loading software so that it was a variable that was accounted for.
The cargo software itself was also a focus, because several witnesses, including the former Chief Mate, told the Board that there were disparities between real conditions and what the program showed in its readout. The witnesses said they all knew to account for the disparities, but didn’t believe there were any written guidelines dealing with the difference which could be passed to people who were new or filling in. Specifically, there was a high turnover in the El Faro Chief Mate position, which is an important role in calculating the ship stability ahead of voyage.
The El Faro was heavily loaded with cargo on her fatal trip. The Captain of her sister ship told the Board that he never lightened his cargo in expectation of bad weather, instead increasing the lashing.
Multiple witnesses told investigators that they had no reason to question the overall ship stability.
The special inspection protocol over El Faro also drew heavy criticism. In fact, concerns about the effectiveness of the program have led to big changes in recent years.
The Alternate Compliance Program was started in the 1990s as a way to recognize the work being done by independent class societies. Those societies are allowed to do surveys and certifications under Coast Guard standards, rather than having the Coast Guard itself do all of the inspection work.
In the last few years, the Coast Guard says they started increasing their oversight and involvement in the program for a few reasons. One is that there were issues with vessels in service that should have been caught, but weren’t. They were also seeing a “degradation of experience” in their own inspectors because of the heavy reliance on the class societies, and didn’t have the resources needed to walk away. Despite the gains, the Coast Guard says there are still “gaps” in the program and their oversight.
The ship was actually set to receive a more rigorous inspection regiment, though. The Coast Guard says they had identified El Faro to be on their “targeting list”, which is an annual list of the vessels under ACP which are most at risk for issues based on a history of problems. Not many specifics were available about the history which led to El Faro getting this classification.
At the level of the ship’s operator, there wasn’t any specific guidance sent out to ships in connection to Hurricane Joaquin. The Captain’s communication with a crew member on vacation showed that he intended to slightly alter his route to skirt the storm, but he didn’t plan to go so far as to take an alternate route altogether. The Captain’s attorney pointed out that the forecasting on Joaquin was continually changing and it strengthened quickly.
While multiple witnesses said there were weather planning systems on board, there were conflicting messages on whether crewmen other than the Captain could access it.
TOTE Services maintained that a Captain wouldn’t have to get their authorization to change his route because of impending bad weather. It’s a policy that was continually questioned, however, because El Faro’s Captain sent an email to TOTE officials which appeared to ask permission for a route change.
The Coast Guard is turning the microscope on themselves as well.
Initial conversations between the Coast Guard and the ship’s operator, TOTE Services, classified the vessel as disabled, but not in distress. The Captain had reported taking on water, listing, and losing propulsion in his final communications.
As soon as the Coast Guard started gathering more information, they realized there was “emergent distress” and took all available action. That action was limited, however, because they couldn’t get assets to the area right away- they were disbursed because of Joaquin. Even when a Hurricane Hunter plane was able to get closest to the scene, it couldn’t get to a level where they could see anything. The Coast Guard was also dealing with another search-and-rescue effort for another container ship. Additionally, a recent software upgrade meant one Coast Guard system was constantly locking up and another they were training on as they were using it. This meant many of their search coordination efforts had to be done manually.
The initial search for the El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder- or black box- may have also been hampered. The company which serviced the device said it could not confirm whether the VDR beacon, which would have alerted to its position, was actually working at the time of the sinking. The battery should have been replaced during the prior annual test because it was set to expire in May. The surveyor who performed the annual test did not switch out the battery, however, so the company was not able to say if the beacon would have been on a few months later, when the ship sank.
El Faro had seen a “cluster” of incidents, according to correspondence between several TOTE officials, including a crewman coming to the ship while allegedly drunk. The company was closely monitoring the ship, as a result. The Captain was passed up for a promotion in part because of his response to the incident with the crewman, because he didn’t push it up to the company right away.
A line of emails among TOTE officials further raised questions about the Captain’s leadership capabilities. Despite that, the company spoke of him as being “eminently qualified” for his position. Some members of the crew said they didn’t agree with how the Captain ran the ship, but erecognized it more as a difference in style than a problem.
There will be a third hearing session scheduled in the future to focus on analyzing data from the VDR, if the device can be recovered and there is information that can be salvaged. Research crews who participated in the search are confident they will get data. The VDR was recently spotted on the ocean floor, but because of the position of other debris- including the El Faro’s mast- investigators have to launch a follow up mission with specialized salvage equipment.