When an initial report arrived saying the captain of the cargo ship El Faro had called ashore for help, the U.S. Coast Guard didn't believe the vessel was at risk of sinking and later had software problems while preparing a response plan.
Still, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Chancery testified Wednesday at an investigative hearing in Jacksonville, Florida, that the ship's distress was soon clear and that software issues did not delay search efforts.
The 790-foot SS El Faro sank in a hurricane Oct. 1 after losing propulsion near the Bahamas on its way from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 aboard died.
Chancery said initial conversations with a representative for the ship's owner, Tote Inc., led the Coast Guard to believe early on that the ship was disabled, but managing to stabilize the situation.
The morning that the ship sank, El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson told Tote's designated person ashore, Capt. John Lawrence, he thought the crew would be able to pump out water coming into the ship, according to testimony.
Based on this information, Chancery told Lawrence he thought the ship might be able to anchor and ride out the bad weather. Even though El Faro was in 15,000 feet of water, Chancery said there were islands near where they thought the ship might be, and that the storm might push the vessel into shallower water.
During these initial conversations, however, Chancery said he heard El Faro's distress alarm and became "very alarmed." When he plotted the ship's location and was unable to reach the vessel's satellite phone, Chancery knew the ship was in serious trouble.
"I knew the general area was right in the middle of (Hurricane) Joaquin," he said.
The Coast Guard had no aircraft that could reach the site in the storm, and the closest possible cutter was hundreds of miles away, Chancery said. The guard was able to get a hurricane hunter aircraft working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to send out a call to the ship. Another vessel in the same general area that was also experiencing trouble also called El Faro, with no reply, he said.
Chancery said crews went into distress mode, but there were glitches with the software the Coast Guard uses to plan searches, called SAR-OPS. So, crews resorted to other methods including using paper charts. Later, they had to spend hours re-inputting data into the software system to use it, Chancery said. He said the software became instrumental later in the search.
"In terms of response time, I don't think the loss of this system would affect it at all," Chancery said, saying all of the guard's assets were unable to reach the area immediately anyway because of the hurricane. Even with winds still high, the guard did send one plane in the next day which was damaged and experienced severe turbulence, Capt. Todd Coggeshall testified on Tuesday.
The Coast Guard investigative board has been interviewing company officials, guard personnel and others to help identify any misconduct or other issues that may have played a role in the accident. After another round of hearings later this year, the Coast Guard will issue a report.
The board can levy civil charges, and will forward any evidence of criminal misconduct to the U.S. Department of Justice. On Tuesday, the board's chairman, Capt. Jason Neubauer, told reporters he did not think the hearings had uncovered any such evidence thus far.
An attorney for Davidson's widow thanked Chancery after his testimony.
"On behalf of Theresa Davidson and the Davidson family, I want to thank you for all the efforts you made," attorney William Bennett said.