Coast Guard to Hold Hearings on El Faro Sinking

The Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) is fueled before departing Norfolk, Virginia, Oct. 19, 2015, to begin searching for wreckage from the missing U.S. flagged merchant vessel El Faro. (US Navy photo)
The Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) is fueled before departing Norfolk, Virginia, Oct. 19, 2015, to begin searching for wreckage from the missing U.S. flagged merchant vessel El Faro. (US Navy photo)

The U.S. Coast Guard will hold a public hearing next month as part of its investigation into the sinking of the container ship El Faro.

All 33 crew members, including four Mainers, died when the ship sank during Hurricane Joaquin in the Bahamas in October. One of the four Mainers was the ship's captain, Michael Davidson of Windham.

The first phase of the Coast Guard hearing will take place at a convention center in Jacksonville, Florida, Feb. 16-26, the Coast Guard announced Tuesday. A second phase of the hearing will be scheduled later. The U.S.-flagged ship was based in Jacksonville and made regular voyages past the Bahamas to Puerto Rico.

The first hearing session will focus on pre-accident events, including the regulatory compliance record of the El Faro, crew member duties and qualifications and past operations of the vessel. The later, yet-to-be scheduled session will examine the ship's last voyage, including cargo loading, weather conditions and navigation.

The Coast Guard said it will try to determine what factors led to the accident, whether there is evidence of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or if a willful violation of the law by any licensed mariner contributed to the sinking. The hearing will also seek to determine whether any Coast Guard personnel or agent of the government caused or contributed to a casualty.

The Coast Guard, which has held hearings after other maritime accidents, will ultimately issue a report of its findings to the maritime community. The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting its own investigation, but will fully participate in the Coast Guard hearings.

The 790-foot-long El Faro sank Oct. 1, off the coast of the Bahamas. The ship set sail for Puerto Rico from Jacksonville, but encountered intense weather and engine trouble as the cargo ship and Hurricane Joaquin converged. Davidson had planned to take a route that was projected to keep him 65 miles from the expected path of the storm.

On the day of the ship's sinking, Davidson contacted TOTE to inform them he had a maritime emergency. A scuttle, one of the ship's internal access hatches, had blown open, and water was filling one of the holds, he said. The ship's engine had also failed and engineers could not get it restarted.

Shortly afterward, Davidson activated an emergency alert signal that broadcast the ship's position to the Coast Guard. The ship's captain never regained voice communication.

The Coast Guard could not locate any survivors in the days and weeks after the sinking. A search later located the wreckage on the floor of the ocean, but failed to find the voyage data recorder that might have provided a clearer explanation of what happened to the ship.

On Monday, the owner of the ship confirmed that it has paid financial settlements to the families of 10 of the crew members who died, including Davidson. Other claims remain unsettled.

Court documents obtained Monday show that Davidson's wife, Teresa, and nine other families of crewmen each accepted a settlement totaling $500,000 for pre-death pain and suffering of their family members. Each family named in the settlement also will receive a payout for economic losses, but the court records didn't specify the amount.

Davidson's family was the only one from Maine to agree to the settlement offered by the El Faro's owners -- Sea Star Lines LLC, doing business as TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and TOTE Services Inc.

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