Contractor, Coast Guard Officer Saw No Hazardous Conditions on El Faro

The cargo ship El Faro sank off the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015 after running head-on into Hurricane Joaquin; all 33 crewmembers died. (US Navy photo)
The cargo ship El Faro sank off the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015 after running head-on into Hurricane Joaquin; all 33 crewmembers died. (US Navy photo)

A U.S. Coast Guard officer and a contractor who rode aboard the El Faro in the weeks before it sank said Thursday they did not see any hazardous conditions while they were on the cargo ship.

Lt. Kimberly Beisner and Luke Laakso, superintendent with Walashek Industrial & Marine who rode on the El Faro to inspect the boiler, testified about their observations before the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the ship sinking Oct. 1 near the Bahamas killing all 33 crew members.

"There was some work that needed to be done. I didn't feel unsafe around those boilers," said Laakso, who was on the 40-year-old ship Sept. 11 through 14.

Beisner, participating in a Coast Guard program that allowed junior officers to ride commercial vessels to understand the ships and the life of merchant mariners on board, boarded the El Faro May 19 in Jacksonville and made two round trips on its typical route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, before disembarking June 1. Beisner is a marine inspection apprentice in the Coast Guard, but was not on the ship as an inspector.

Beisner acknowledged she is not an expert on the ships, but spent time on the bridge and in the engine room, where she checked off items she needed to learn as part of her experience. She also watched cargo operations.

Those on board did not raise any safety issues, Beisner said.

El Faro captain Michael Davidson was aware Beisner was not on the ship as an inspector, although she said he privately told her the crew did not feel comfortable with her and the other Coast Guard members on board.

But she said Davidson took interest in helping her complete the program.

Beisner was emotional recounting her relationship with second mate Danielle Randolph, who she said she observed and worked alongside on the ship.

"Her and I really connected because we had a lot in common," she said.

Randolph, 34, of Rockland, Maine, was one of the 33 who perished on the cargo ship when it sank after Hurricane Joaquin overtook the ship.

"Overall, she seemed pretty happy on board and enjoyed her job," Beisner said.

Beisner observed good working relationships on board, but said there was an underlying tension because El Faro operator Tote Services Inc. selected some for a new line of ships and not others.

"I felt like there was definitely tension," she said.

But officers seemed to get along well, Beisner said.

In her experience, Beisner said she would agree with an assessment from a Tote official that Davidson was a "stateroom captain."

Randolph told her Davidson was "hands off" and not involved with activities on board. The captain could also have a temper and did not sympathize with the schedule some officers worked, Beisner recounted being told. Randolph said she was often tired because of her work rotation, but Biesner said she did not seem tired.

But when asked by an attorney for Davidson's widow Theresa, Beisner said the captain was very meticulous, was prepared and thoughtful, had intensive interaction with pilots, was always aware of what was going on, was approachable, was "very invested in the bridge team management," his crew respected him and they were comfortable with his judgment. He was also very professional, she said.

Boiler Deteriorating

Laakso outlined the deteriorating and warn conditions of the boilers on the ship, but said he did not see any safety hazards.

"I would recommend that it be fixed right away," Laakso said, but said he is a contractor and the ship's owner decides when to make repairs.

He wrote some parts had "severe deterioration" or were in "very bad shape."

An attorney for Tote pointed out, and Laakso agreed, the needed work on the boilers was about efficiency and not safety. Laakso said he would have spoken to the chief engineer for the ship if he came across any conditions he thought were unsafe.

A July 29 email between officials with Tote Services outlined many of the concerns with the boilers.

Laakso said his findings were for consideration in November when the ship was going to be in the ship yard for changes for an Alaskan route. Knowing that, he said he did not recommend a time frame for the work.

Laakso said the officers in the engine room seemed "pretty competent" to him and said he did not see anything he considered out of the ordinary in the engine room.

Software Issues

Software used to plan loading of containers and other material on the cargo ship didn't match real-world results, but crew members compensated, former El Faro chief mate Jamie Torres told the panel.

"We knew the ship would leave straight up and down," he said.

Plans for storing cargo on the ship used software called CargoMax that Torres said projected a "consistent list" that wasn't reflected in actual observations of the ship. Torres told the board that discrepancy was factored into plans for loading cargo without disrupting the ship's stability as weight was added.

He said an audit was done of CargoMax plans on the El Yunque, a similar ship that worked opposite the El Faro. "Everything was spot-on," he said.

The board shifted Thursday morning to asking about equipment that was used to secure containers and other big cargo, showing Torres photos of rusted items from the El Yunque and asking if the El Faro was similar.

Torres said conditions on the El Faro were generally similar, but dismissed suggestions they posed any problem.

Looking at an image of a fastener called a button projected onto a screen, he called it "surface rust" and said the item "looks more than adequate to me."

The Marine Board of Investigation will complete its initial two-week hearing related to the El Faro tragedy Friday, questioning a port engineer with Tote and an inspector.

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