Jacksonville, FL - El Faro’s sister ship was scrapped for “commercial reasons”, according to the company over the vessel.
Through this latest hearing session of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation working the El Faro sinking, consistent questions have arisen regarding some of the potential issues on board El Yunque, specifically in connection to her vent trunks. This session was also the first that investigators publicly confirmed El Yunque was being scrapped instead of heading to the Alaskan trade, but until Monday’s testimony, it wasn’t clear what went in to that decision.
TOTE attorneys questioning TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico Director of Operations Lee Peterson, who was the TOTE Services Director of Safety and Marine Operations at the time of the sinking, asked him to point blank speak to whether the Coast Guard had ordered the ship be scrapped because of safety concerns.
“The decision on scrapping the El Yunque- I was not involved in that decision, but my understanding is that it was a commercial decision and it was based on the conversions that were ongoing with the Orca class ships,” Peterson says.
El Faro and El Yunque were set to be converted for the Alaskan trade in order to temporarily take the place of two Orca-class ships on that route, which were thought to need engine replacements, according to Peterson. He says the new engines were to meet new emissions standards, and would take the ships out of service, at a foreign shipyard, for an extended period of time.
FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking
The engine manufacturer later determined the engines could be converted, instead of replaced.
“The current conversion, a lot of it can be done underway on the vessels. And for the required shipyard periods, they’re a short enough duration where we don’t require a replacement ship to fill in for them,” Peterson says.
As a result, he says they no longer needed El Yunque to spell the Alaska ships. His attorney asked whether he was aware of conversations of other commercial factors that also went in to the decision to scrap, but Peterson says he was not.
The MBI wanted to be explicitly clear, though.
“Is it your testimony that the El Yunque was not scrapped at least in part due to safety concerns that would have to be corrected and the substantial amount of work to be done,” asked MBI Chair Captain Jason Neubauer.
Peterson initially responded “correct”, before consulting with his attorney and stating that he wasn’t aware of any safety considerations in the decision. TOTE Services Attorney Luke Reid soon added a caveat, though.
“He gave you what his understanding was with respect to the reason, and it involved Orcas and thinks like that in his testimony. Sitting down with Mr. Peterson, we realized that that was not a correct statement. So his understanding was not correct, I just wanted to make sure that’s corrected for the record,” Reid says.
The clear line was blurred further, when some on the MBI introduced glimpses of conversations or correspondences they appeared to question could be involved in the decision. Board Member Keith Fawcett asked Peterson if he was aware of discussions in September 2015 related to delaying the Orca conversions because of a “cascading series of events”, which included problems with the Isla Bella. The Isla Bella is one of the ships that was going to replace El Faro and El Yunque, who were then going to spell the Alaskan ships. Neubauer further asked whether Peterson was aware of a meeting between senior TOTE executives and the US Coast Guard headquarters to discuss the scrapping of El Yunque.
On both accounts, Peterson was not aware of the conversations.
GALLERY: Inside the MBI third hearing session
Through this hearing session, the MBI Board has been closely examining specifically the state of El Yunque’s vent trunks. Earlier testimony shows there was severe wastage found in one of the trunks in 3 hold during a Document of Compliance Audit. The Coast Guard says the American Bureau of Shipping was tasked with inspecting the other vent trunks, and they cleared them. During a later drydock on the Northwest, though, wastage was found by the Coast Guard in many other trunks, and inspectors believed it to be long term.
TOTE Services Port Engineer Tim Neeson tells the MBI he was involved in the inspection of the other vent trunks, after the ship had been moved to the drydock. He crawled inside and chipped at the metal to determine the strength and state.
“Pretty bad, pretty rusty,” Neeson says.
He says they opened “a considerable amount” of the vent trunks, but not all of them.
They made a plan to address the needed repairs, which included changing questionable steel. Plans changed with the decision to scrap the vessel.
There has been no documentation of severe wastage found on El Faro at this time, but investigators have noted that they will continue to present evidence connected to her sister ship because of the similarities and because it can help speak to how the vessels were being managed. The vent trunks specifically have also become a point of interest, since an MBI-requested report presented during this hearing session showed it’s possible water was able to get in through the vent trunks, contributing to the flooding El Faro was experiencing ahead of her sinking.
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