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It’s another step toward boosting safety at sea, as a result of the sinking of Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro, which killed 33 people in 2015. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has unanimously passed what they’re calling the Maritime Safety Act of 2018. Lawmakers say they worked in conjunction with the Coast Guard, maritime unions, the NTSB, El Faro’s surveyor the American Bureau of Shipping, and El Faro’s owner TOTE Maritime in coming up with the package of changes, which now heads to the full House.  “The loss of this US-flagged cargo vessel, its 33-member crew ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in US history,” said Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who introduced the legislation.  A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation was convened to investigate the sinking, which happened when the ship encountered Hurricane Joaquin, while heavily loaded and transiting from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. The Board held three two-week public hearing sessions in Jacksonville, resulting in recommendations that were issued two years after the vessel sank. The Coast Guard Commandant then reviewed that report and issued his Final Action Memo last December, outlining changes the Coast Guard could control, as well as ones that required collaboration from other parties.  FULL COVERAGE: The sinking of El Faro This bill largely reflects what was outlined in the FAM, including steps the Coast Guard says they’re already taking.  One of the notable differences from what is directly included in the FAM- but well in line with what was made clear during the MBI testimony- is an order in the bill that the Coast Guard Commandant determine the time and funding it would take to triple the current size of the traveling inspector staff. Testimony during the MBI hearing showed inspectors were becoming increasingly reliant on third-party surveyors, like the American Bureau of Shipping, and weren’t supervising as many inspections, in part because of diminishing resources and in part because of holes in communication between the parties. This was also leading to a drop off in knowledge and experience among the Coast Guard inspectors. The bill further addresses this by instructing the Coast Guard to boost training at many levels, including for prospective sector commanders and inspectors. The training would also be required to be available to third party surveyors that do work under the Coast Guard’s Alternate Compliance Program, according to the bill.  ACP is something that was heavily reviewed by the MBI- it’s a program that allows alternate class societies like ABS to perform work on behalf of the Coast Guard, in order to avoid duplication of work and maximize available resources. This bill would establish advanced training on oversight of these third parties, which some of the lawmakers involved say is a step in the right direction, although maybe not the full solution.  “I have concerns about the conflicts with these certification societies. You’re out there in the free market, you want to sell your services, I guess maybe you don’t want to be too tough on people, but you know, that’s not the way this should work. So, we need more oversight of those certification authorities, maybe more, maybe some liability or fiscal responsibility in the future, when it’s noted that they passed a ship that shouldn’t have been passed for numerous reasons,” said ranking Committee member Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) during a meeting this week when the bill was passed.  GALLERY: Tributes to the El Faro crew ACP also features what is called the Supplement, which addresses any area of conflict between guidelines among the different parties, or anything that is left out. Testimony showed the Coast Guard is lagging substantially in keeping various Supplements up to date, with each alternate class society having overlaps which need to be addressed. While the MBI had recommended eliminating the use of supplements outright, the FAM ordered working with the alternate class societies to create one unified Supplement. That is the option favored in this legislation.  DeFazio was among those saying this is positive movement, but far from the end of their work. Committee member Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) noted that with the ask for more work, must come more resources.  “The Coast Guard is, in fact, doing less with less. According to the Marine Board of Investigation report, we now know that the Coast Guard’s internal marine safety and inspection functions was one of those missions that did less with less,” he said.  Funding could dictate some of the equipment changes outlined in the bill. Through this legislation, the Committee would be requiring all personnel on these vessels be outfitted with distress signaling that has location technology. Search and rescue operations following the sinking of El Faro were initially hampered by weather, but even after the skies cleared, crews had difficulty locating any possible survivors in the water.  There was one set of remains located by search and rescue crews, but they did not immediately recover it, because that would have forced them to return to land immediately- and they had just received a report of a possible waiving survival suit, so they needed to search for that possible survivor. While the crew put a locator beacon on the remains, it did not work, and they were not able to locate the remains again. Subject to appropriations, the bill is requiring the Coast Guard Commandant to work on an effective beacon for items that are not able to be immediately retrieved, although the FAM indicated the beacons that were in use at that time have already been phased out for more effective ones.  “If you’re floating in the ocean in 2018, you can find your iPhone, but we can’t find you. We’re gunna change that,” Hunter said.  The weather was a factor leading up to the sinking as well, with testimony showing that the Captain was working off some outdated weather information, because of a one-time glitch in one of the ship’s on-board systems leading to a duplicated storm track being used without the Captain and crew’s knowledge. Even the other weather packages through this system- the Bon Voyage System- featured data that was hours old, because of the amount of processing and transposing that was done in order to get it to show in map form with overlays. This bill urges negotiations to create rules requiring ships receive “synoptic and graphical chart weather forecasts” in a timely manner.   “The importance of timely weather forecasts sounds simple, but the El Faro crew was making decisions based on forecasts that were many hours old, despite significant changes in the forecasted storm trajectory,” Hunter said.  The FAM found the primary cause of El Faro’s sinking to be the Captain’s decision to navigate too close to the path of Hurricane Joaquin, although there were contributing factors as well. The FAM says some blame lies on ABS’s failure to uncover and fix longstanding deficiencies, the Coast Guard’s failure to properly oversee inspections, and TOTE Services’ ineffective safety management system.  AUDIO: El Faro’s Captain calls in “marine emergency” The Committee is further seeking to boost transparency, through requiring information on vessel compliance to be documented and available publicly. They also want to require an audit of the effectiveness of safety management plans, with findings and recommendations presented to lawmakers. That report would then become public as well.  The bill is also looking at requiring companies to keep records of incremental weight changes, in order to track those over time. Those records would be kept both on the vessel and on shore. This reflects some concern that was raised over work that was taking place on El Faro, to convert her to the Alaskan trade. There was testimony at the MBI hearings about possible changes in weight distribution as a result of this conversion work, which was not being documented and considered from a stability perspective. Records retention is another concern, since some documents that could have further assisted the investigation in to the sinking were lost on the vessel when it went down.  El Faro had previously undergone a work, which investigators determined with hindsight should have been deemed a “major conversion”. That classification would have likely led to the ship being forced in to some more modern safety standards that were in effect in 2005-06 when the work was done. The Commandant ordered a review in the FAM for how the major conversion determination is made and documented, and the Committee now- in this bill- is ordering a similar review and full briefing on the findings.  Some of what is outlined in this bill can be implemented by the Coast Guard, but some would have the Commandant enter in to negotiations with other parties.  First, lawmakers want to require high-water alarm sensors in each cargo hold, with both audible and visual alarms located on the bridge. This reflects findings about the series of flooding which is believed to have taken place on the vessel. In conjunction with the flooding, lawmakers are ordering a review of whether current regulations and rules are effective in addressing openings and closures on vessels, and the impact those have in stability standards. The MBI believes water for in to a cargo area of El Faro through an open scuttle that should have been closed. Investigators think cargo was then able to break loose because of the flooding, potentially damaging the fire system on board and leading to more flooding. Water is also believed to have entered through open vents, which served a dual purpose.  Following the initial flooding and resulting list, investigators believe the Captain overcorrected with ballast and other measures, leading to a substantial list on the other side. From there, the lube oil system lost suction, leading to a loss of propulsion as the hurricane bared down.  Another area that would have to be negotiated is requiring all Voyage Data Recorders- or black boxes- to have an emergency position indicating radio beacon, and to be installed in a “float-free” arrangement, meaning they would break loose from the vessel as the ship sank. El Faro’s VDR went down with the ship, and it took two missions to locate it and a third to recover it, which in the end provided investigators with valuable information about what happened in the final moments on board.  FULL DETAILS: El Faro’s VDR captures final moments on board What the VDR captures is another area of change. Under this bill, lawmakers would task the Commandant to do a cost-benefit analysis on requiring VDRs capture internal ship telephone conversations from both sides, not only from the bridge. While the investigators were able to recover more than a day’s worth of audio from the bridge El Faro that had been recorded on the VDR, that audio was only what could be heard from the bridge, so it’s unclear what engineers and other parties were saying in conversations with the Captain and the crew who were on watch.  Additionally, following on a recommendation from the FAM, the bill would require the Coast Guard to have “full and timely” access to the VDR data and audio. The NTSB led the missions to locate and recover the VDR, and then held custody of the device. While we have been told the NTSB and MBI worked in close cooperating throughout the fact-finding process, this would codify the Coast Guard’s access to the data.  “The loss of life and the exhaustive investigation that revealed significant safety deficiencies in both the vessels and in those individuals charged in their safe operation should be motivation enough for us to enact this purposeful reforms,” says Garamendi.  While the NTSB and MBI collaborated through much of the investigation, including the NTSB sitting in and participating in the MBI’s public hearings, both agencies worked independently on their final reports and recommendations. The NTSB issued its own report late last year, and has since been lobbying for change.  While this bill now heads to the full House, there is no companion in the Senate at this time. Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s office tells us they’re working on a bill that is even more wide reaching, which deals with NTSB recommendations as well. He intends to introduce that soon, according to his office.

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  • A nonprofit organization has announced a major donation to help pay off the mortgage on a slain Massachusetts police officer's family home. Weymouth police Sgt. Michael Chesna, 42, was shot and killed Sunday in the line of duty.  >> On Boston25News.com: Weymouth police Officer Michael Chesna posthumously promoted to sergeant The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation is providing the first $100,000 toward the mortgage and is challenging others to support the family through the initiative. Any money raised exceeding the mortgage will go directly to Chesna's wife and two children. >> On Boston25News.com: Court docs: Man stood over Weymouth officer and shot him 10 times The foundation, established in memory of a fallen 9/11 firefighter, supports military and first responders who are killed in the line of duty. In addition to his service with the Weymouth Police Department, Chesna was also a military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. >> Read more trending news  Frank Siller, chairman and CEO of the foundation, will join Weymouth police Chief Richard Grimes at the Weymouth Police Department at 3 p.m. Wednesday to make the official announcement. Click here if you’d like to donate.
  • A Florida mother said her son saved her life in the seconds before a crash that claimed his life. >> Watch the news report here Greg Yutuc, 22, was the only person killed in a three-vehicle crash near Jacksonville's Buckman Bridge on Saturday afternoon. >> On ActionNewsJax.com: PHOTOS: University of North Florida student saves mom's life in I-295 crash, dad says Stitches lined Gerry Yutuc’s bruised eyelid and his wife, Charina, had a seat belt burn across her chest. “All I remember is seeing that red car and we are spinning around,” Gerry Yutuc said. They were headed back from their family vacation and were driving on I-295 with their three kids in their van when state troopers said a 21-year-old driver rear-ended another car, then cut off their van. “It was too late for me,” Yutuc said. Their son, Greg, was sitting in the passenger seat and grabbed the steering wheel at the last second. “So the impact could be on his side, to avoid the impact on mom,” Yutuc said. >> Read more trending news  Yutuc said the van flipped. “I looked around and saw four people. My wife, my two daughters and without Greg,” Yutuc said. Greg was thrown from the vehicle and an officer on scene told them their son didn’t make it. Florida Highway Patrol said Greg was not wearing a seat belt. “We didn’t have a chance to hug him and say goodbye,” Yutuc said. Since Greg was a child, he’s been on several mission trips and had plans of becoming a missionary, his parents said. “His heart is really sharing the gospel,” Yutuc said. In his 22 years, Yutuc said his only son affected many lives. “I know we have a great son, but I didn’t know the extent of his influence,” Yutuc said. >> On ActionNewsJax.com: Drivers concerned about safety on Buckman Bridge It was unconditional, selfless love they said Greg will be most remembered by. “He inspired us and we want to be an inspiration,” Yutuc said. The family said the community support has been overwhelming.
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  • A registered sex offender wanted in three separate Houston-area slayings since Friday was caught early Tuesday morning following a brief police chase not far from where authorities say his alleged crime spree began. Jose Gilberto Rodriguez, 46, of Houston, was taken into custody while driving a gray 2017 Nissan Sentra that law enforcement officials said was stolen from one of the victims.  Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during a media briefing Tuesday morning that an observant citizen called authorities shortly after 6 a.m. to report seeing the vehicle in Cypress, an unincorporated community northwest of Houston.  “It’s possible that he was casing the area in search of his next victim,” Gonzalez said during the briefing, which was attended and recorded by the Houston Chronicle.  A deputy in the area spotted the car and a 14-minute pursuit ensued. Rodriguez was taken into custody just before 7 a.m. A pistol was recovered from the stolen car, the sheriff said.  “We’re very relieved this morning,” Gonzalez said about Rodriguez’s capture.  >> Related story: Shooting deaths at mattress stores in Houston are linked, police say The sheriff said his agency had deputies positioned in the Cypress area before the suspect was spotted because the first crime attributed to Rodriguez, a July 9 home invasion and robbery, took place less than half a mile from where he was ultimately captured.  Rodriguez’s parents also live in the area and he grew up there, the sheriff confirmed.  The first homicide that Rodriguez is suspected of committing also took place in Cypress. Pamela Johnson, 62, was found shot to death in her home there Friday evening.  Gonzalez said during a news conference over the weekend that Johnson’s family became worried when no one could get in touch with her. The last time family members spoke to Johnson was around noon on July 10, the day after the home invasion about two and a half miles away.  >> Read more trending news Detectives investigating Johnson’s slaying found that personal property was stolen, including Johnson’s maroon 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser, the sheriff said. The PT Cruiser was found Saturday evening at Willowbrook Mall after a citizen reported seeing the vehicle aedbandoned in the parking lot. Mall surveillance video footage showed a man -- later identified by investigators as Rodriguez -- park the vehicle around 11 a.m. that morning. The man was seen on video walking through the mall and exiting the building on the opposite side from where he abandoned the victim’s car.  Around 7 p.m. that same night, the body of Mattress Firm manager Allie Barrow, 28, was found by a fellow employee, stuffed between two mattresses in the back of the store. The Mattress Firm store where Barrow was slain is in a strip mall across the street from Willowbrook Mall.  Barrow had been shot in the head, investigators said.  Gonzalez and Houston police Chief Art Acevedo, who held a joint news conference Monday afternoon to identify Rodriguez as a person of “strong interest” and ask for the public’s help in tracking him down, reported that a third homicide took place that morning at a Mattress One store in Houston, where a man was found shot to death.  The Nissan Rodriguez was driving when captured was taken from the scene of the Mattress One homicide, officials said. KPRC in Houston identified the victim of that killing as Edward Magana, 57.  A fourth person, a 22-year-old Metro Lift driver, was also shot in the abdomen and robbed Monday morning in Houston. Acevedo said that the bus driver was expected to survive.  The motive for the crimes was not known, Gonzalez said Tuesday morning. Neither he nor Acevedo detailed how Rodriguez was tied to all the crimes.  Rodriguez was released from prison in September, the Chronicle reported. Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel told the newspaper that his release was mandated by law, due to the amount of time he’d already served. Rodriguez, whose violent criminal history dates back to at least 1989, was on parole and was supposed to be on supervised release until 2023. He was ordered to wear an ankle monitor, but the Chronicle reported that he had tampered with it in the days before police and sheriff’s deputies began searching for him in connection with the homicides.  It was unclear if he was still wearing the disabled device when he was arrested.  Records accessed by the Chronicle showed that Rodriguez was sent to prison for attempted sex abuse, burglary and auto theft charges in 1989. Then 17, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. While in prison, he was charged in a theft case out of Montgomery County, for which he was sentenced to 10 years, with that time to run concurrently with his sentence on the previous charges.  Rodriguez was also found with a weapon while serving time, the Chronicle reported. Another 10 years was added to his sentence.  He served 28 years in prison before his release on parole last fall. Texas’ sex offender registry shows that Rodriguez was classified as high risk. 

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