Two years after El Faro sinking, Coast Guard investigators releasing recommended action

Jacksonville, FL — Two years to the day after the cargo ship El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 people on board, recommendations on how to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again are set to be released.

There have been two federal investigations taking place in the aftermath of the sinking- one by the NTSB and one by a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation. The NTSB has previously announced that it will release its findings- to include a probable cause of the sinking and recommendations to address safety issues- in December.

Now, WOKV has confirmed the Marine Board of Investigation Chairman has signed their Report of Investigation, and it will be publicly released October 1st. The ROI will include causal factors of the sinking and proposed safety recommendations for future action.

FULL COVERAGE:El Faro sinking

Typically, the ROI is not publicly released until the Commandant of the Coast Guard issues his own Final Action Memo, which details the MBI recommendations with which the Commandant concurs, does not concur, or concurs with some caveat. That FAM is what ultimately leads to action- either the Coast Guard directing and instituting change within itself, or laying out a plan to enact change through cooperation with lawmakers, agencies, and other involved parties.

With this El Faro investigation, the Coast Guard is allowing the ROI to be released ahead of the FAM. MBI Spokeswoman Alana Miller tells WOKV this was done for several reasons, including that it allows the maritime industry to make self corrections while the Commandant considers final action. Miller says they also feel that releasing the ROI helps the transparency and independence they have tried to maintain through this investigative process, by giving more information to the public and putting forward the recommendations straight from the MBI, unaltered.

“The most important thing to remember is that 33 people lost their lives in this tragedy. If adopted, we believe the safety recommendations in our report will improve safety of life at sea,” says MBI Chairman Captain Jason Neubauer.

There is some precedent for the early release of the ROI- which also happened during the Deepwater Horizon investigation- although it is not common, according to Miller.

There is no timeline for how long the Commandant will review the ROI before issuing the FAM.

GALLERY: Tributes to those who died on El Faro

WOKV has further confirmed the families of the 33 people killed in the sinking will be briefed on the ROI a day ahead of the public release. Miller says the members of the MBI were insistent the families get the information firsthand and from those involved in the investigation, before it becomes public. There will be three briefings taking place virtually simultaneously- one in Jacksonville, given by Neubauer; one in Portland, ME, given by MBI member Commander Matt Denning; and one in Poland, given by a European liason. Five of the 33 who died were members of a Polish riding gang doing work on board the ship as she prepared to convert to the Alaskan trade. In addition to the briefing that will take place in Poland, the MBI intends to translate the ROI in to Polish as well.

When the ROI becomes public on October 1st, Capt. Neubauer will also speak with media in Jacksonville. WOKV will have full coverage of the ROI and Capt. Neubauer’s comments as they’re available.

The MBI held three two-week public hearing sessions in Jacksonville since the sinking, during which investigators questioned officials with the ship's owner and operator, former crew members, those involved in the search and rescue efforts, those behind the weather technology on board, and others. Several "Parties In Interest" were also allowed to question the witnesses because of their involvement in the ship's operation, including TOTE, the American Bureau of Shipping, Herbert Engineering, and the attorney for the widow of El Faro's Captain. These PII's will be emailed the ROI a day ahead of its public release- the same day the families are briefed- and will be able to follow up with one of the MBI's Advisors as needed, according to Miller.

Once the families and PII’s are given the ROI, they will have 30 days to submit comments to the Commandant of the Coast Guard for his consideration, as he weighs final action.

The NTSB also participated in the MBI hearings, but additionally conducted their own interviews. Since the final MBI hearing session, the NTSB has been working independently on its own final report, which they will issue in December.

GALLERY: El Faro's wreckage

A crucial point in the investigative process was the salvage and transcription of El Faro's Voyage Data Recorder, or VDR- which is commonly known as the "black box". This became the longest transcript ever assembled by the NTSB, with more than 26 hours of information captured ahead of the sinking. The VDR became a focal point of the third MBI hearing session, because it had not been available for the first two.

The public hearing sessions and documents released by the NTSB so far show broadly that the ship was heavily loaded with cargo en route from Jacksonville, FL to Puerto Rico when she encountered Hurricane Joaquin. The Captain reported a substantial list after taking on water and losing propulsion, in his last shoreside contact. The final moments captured by the VDR detail the Captain sounding the alarms and calling to abandon ship, but none of the crew were ever recovered.

AUDIO: El Faro Captain's final shoreside contact

There have been a host of questions raised during the investigations which this ROI, the subsequent FAM, and the separate NTSB report are expected to address. The stability of El Faro's cargo, the state of the ship itself, the inspection protocol covering El Faro and other commercial vessels, how the owner and operator communicated with ships at sea, the quality of the technology on board, crew training and rest, shipboard culture, the increasing workload of the ship and owner and operator- with an increase in cargo and the company transitioning to a new class of vessels- among other topics have been covered in WOKV's extensive reporting since the sinking.

The NTSB has actually issued a series of recommendations already, despite their investigation still being ongoing. They were released near the start of the hurricane season, specifically addressing measures to make mariners safer at sea in potential heavy weather situations.

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