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For Investigators of El Faro Sinking, Long Hours, Many Leads to Follow

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)

When the hearings into the loss of the El Faro finally end, the work of U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer, chairman of the investigation, will not be done.

Before the findings are released to the public, he will offer to travel to the families of those lost with the ship, so he can show them the report: Here, this is what we found. This, we believe, is how it happened.

It's Coast Guard policy, that he or one of his colleagues take such a step. Besides, it's the right thing to do, Neubauer said. The smart thing, too.

"Our reports go public, and we don't want [families] to be surprised by anything," he said. "And sometimes they'll even bring up a point that we need to address. Nobody will be a tougher critic than the family of somebody who died."

Meeting with the families of those lost to the sea can be emotionally difficult, but meaningful, he said.

"That session, it's almost closure for the investigator, too; it kind of completes the cycle. If the family member says, 'I think the investigation is thorough, I'm happy to get the results of it,' there is some closure, because it's usually a long process to get there."

On Friday the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation wrapped up its second two-week hearing into the El Faro, a Jacksonville-based cargo ship that lost propulsion and sank Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 people on board were lost.

Neubauer said there will be at least one more session in Jacksonville, regardless of whether the ship's data recorder can be retrieved and is in working order. It was found recently near the El Faro, 3 miles beneath the ocean's surface.

There's still a lot to learn about the loss of the ship, and how future disasters like it can be avoided.

Neubauer is based in Washington, D.C., where he's chief of the Coast Guard's Office of Investigations and Analysis. He's 45, and entered the Coast Guard Academy at 17 out of his hometown of Redondo Beach, Calif.

The Coast Guard conducts more than 5,000 investigations of marine casualties each year. Neubauer has been doing investigations for 22 years, a job that's taken him around the world, covering a wide range of incidents: He's even looked into parasailing accidents.

The El Faro hearings, held at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, are at the Coast Guard's highest level of investigation. It's the biggest investigation since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill that fouled the Gulf of Mexico. Neubauer was not involved in that inquiry, as he was stationed in Hawaii at the time.

He was in his Washington office when he saw the first search and rescue alerts about the El Faro.

"It caught my attention — a large vessel," he said. "I knew that if something had happened to the vessel it would be one of the largest investigations in U.S. history. I knew within a few minutes, just because of the hurricane and some of the things that could happen."

He said the hearings are all-consuming for him and his team of 10, with long hours and weeks of preparation.

"To get ready for two weeks takes six weeks," he said. "Really, El Faro is the thing I think about all the time."

The investigations team usually wakes at 6 a.m., he said, and over breakfast they review questions emailed out the night before from headquarters. Neubauer, in full dress uniform, gets to the convention center at 7:30, and starts the hearings promptly at 9.

"To me it's important to show punctuality," Neubauer said. "This is our main focus — we're always going to do exactly what we say we're going to do. That adds an element of credibility to the process."

After hearings wrap up at 5 or 6 p.m., the team has a "group huddle" at the hotel from 6 to 8 p.m.

Neubauer has a conference call with headquarters each evening at 7, then puts out a report for his bosses by night's end. In addition, he reviews the daily reports given him by his team, then sends them to an on-site public-relations expert.

He's up until 2 a.m. some nights, and keeps a journal and pen by his hotel bed for the frequent times he awakens in the night with a pertinent thought.

When he's not conducting investigations, he's often reading about them. He's read books on any number of maritime disasters and often pours through official reports of investigations he had no part in. "I read them for fun. Well, not for fun, but they're very interesting," he said. "I read them to hone my report-writing ability."

Neubauer said he likes puzzles, always has. He watches all the real-life murder mystery shows on TV, but jokes that he has to watch in the basement — his wife and son find them too depressing.

Indeed, conducting an investigation into a shipping accident shares similarities with police work: Interviewing witnesses, searching for clues, following leads, researching backgrounds.

The team follows up on emails and advice from experts around the world; they pay attention to all theories, he said, and try to track down possible leads.

The board is also investigating the Coast Guard itself: How were the search and rescue efforts conducted? Were inspections on the ship done correctly? Was something missed?

"You never want to be seen as giving your own agency a pass," he said.

In some maritime accidents, though, investigators may never find a single so-called smoking gun, Neubauer said.

"You have to look at all the causal factors," he said. "Try to examine not only the training, but the weather, the compliance of the vessels beforehand. Do the companies really have a good safety management system? So in the end, you could have hundreds of contributing factors. Maybe they all aligned perfectly."

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