El Faro Sinking Unexplainable, Tote Executive Tells Coast Guard Panel

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)

Even after months of review, the cargo ship El Faro's sinking defies explanation, an executive at Tote, Inc., the ship's parent company, told a Coast Guard panel investigating the disaster that took 33 mariners' lives.

"I think this tragic loss is all about an accident," Tote Executive Vice President Peter Keller said Thursday. "... I for one cannot identify any factor that would lead to this tragic event."

The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation finishes two weeks of hearings Friday in Jacksonville, where El Faro left on the voyage to Puerto Rico that ended with its Oct. 1 sinking in Hurricane Joaquin.

A separate two-week hearing was held in February, and a third is expected but has not been scheduled. Staff from the National Transportation Safety Board has also taken part in all the hearings, designed to identify the disaster's causes and steps to avoid repeats.

Facing a board that earlier discussed Tote's safety measures, Keller repeated a point other company executives had made about responsibility at sea resting ultimately with the captain.

"The captain, the master of the vessel, in any company I've ever worked for ... is just that. He is the master of the vessel," Keller said. "... Once he's at sea, it's up to him to manage his vessel."

But after Keller hammered home that company leaders "absolutely have to concentrate on safety ... [or] you will not be in business very long," NTSB investigator Tom Roth-Roffy told him the sinking could also be seen as a "colossal failure" for the company's leadership.

Keller said the company wants to make any improvements it can.

"As management, we look for what NTSB and this board may come up with," he said.

The board also questioned Keller about plans to move El Faro from its weekly Puerto Rico route to a relief role on a West Coast route to Alaska. He answered that El Faro years ago had been "ice strengthened," meaning its hull was reinforced to handle sea ice that would be encountered in Alaska.

Crews had begun refitting El Faro for its new role, attaching cargo winches in areas where winches had been used years earlier and removed.

Those changes were raised Thursday with another witness, Tote Maritime Puerto Rico port engineer William Weinbecker. He had formerly worked at the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Center and was part of a team of Tote employees handling emergency tasks right after El Faro sank, but had not regularly worked with El Faro.

Asked by board members about changes to El Faro that had been performed without the company notifying the Coast Guard or the American Bureau of Shipping, the company also called that it delegates to handle many ship reviews, Weinbecker said at least some of those could be justified.

Winches like those being added for Alaska service had been used before, so they could be considered as restoring an earlier feature. But he said other changes were more questionable, because extra weight can affect the ship's stability.

"A major weight change, such as [adding] transverse beams, fructose tanks, things like that ... there has to be a point where you're reasonable," he said. The former head of ABS' stability group testified last week that 100-ton fructose tanks installed earlier for El Faro's Puerto Rico run should have been reviewed by ABS beforehand, although he said the effect on the ship was likely negligible.

Also Thursday, a technician who worked on lifeboats the day El Faro left Jacksonville the last timesaid he talked with the crew about traveling with them if his job wasn't done by sailing time.

"I would have felt plenty safe with the guys and my equipment," said Bruce Wagner, a service technician for Harding Safety Inc., who said he sails about three months per year on ships he's servicing.

Wagner, who spent a day and a half on El Faro, said he had lunch with the crew and heard a passing mention of a storm at sea, but it wasn't discussed as a big problem.

That storm was Hurricane Joaquin, which sank El Faro Oct. 1, claiming the lives of 33 mariners onboard for the voyage from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico.

Wagner was on El Faro Sept. 28 and 29, when he replaced parts in winch equipment used for raising and lowering lifeboats. The lifeboats are inspected annually and brake oil was found leaking from one spot in the winch system.

He said he was asked about traveling with the ship when work was going slowly because a part needed for the 1970s-vintage ship was taking time to obtain.

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