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Coast Guard to Hold Final Hearings into Sinking of 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)

The Coast Guard is holding its third and final hearing into the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro, which will include follow-up testimony and an examination of the transcript of audio taken from the freighter's voyage data recorder.

The El Faro was sailing from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico when it sank Oct. 1 in Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas after its hull was breached and took on water, it lost propulsion and it began listing 15 degrees or more. All 33 crew members died, two with ties to South Hampton Roads. The bodies have not been recovered.

Victims' family members have claimed in court documents that the 1970s-era ship wasn't seaworthy and that the ship's captain negligently guided it into the path of a storm to make a delivery on time and save money on fuel. The ship was scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico at 5 a.m. Oct. 2.

Transcripts from about 10 hours of relevant recordings were released in December and show that the crew was ordered to abandon ship, place their lifeboats into the water and stay together. At least one crew member sounded fearful for his life with Capt. Phil Davidson telling him not to panic.

"I'm a goner," the helmsman said loudly minutes before the audio recording stopped.

"No, you're not," Davidson yelled back.

"It's time to come to this way," Davidson later said after the helmsman had been yelling for help.

Seconds later, the audio cut off to the sounds of more yelling.

The recording began about 5:37 a.m. Sept. 30, about eight hours after the El Faro left Jacksonville, with the ship about 173 miles southeast of the city, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The recordings show Davidson was waiting to hear from the ship's operator, Tote Maritime, to get approval to take a longer and more expensive route to avoid the storm.

"I wanna come home Old Bahama Channel. And not even get tangled up with this thing," Davidson said. "I asked the office."

"Any word back?," asked a seaman.

"No. Cause it's a hundred and sixty more miles. That's more fuel. You know?" Davidson replied.

The company eventually responded that the longer route was authorized, but the company has said Davidson was authorized to act without its specific direction.

The master ordered the crew to abandon ship and sounded the alarm about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 1. The recording ended about 10 minutes later when the 790-foot El Faro was about 45 miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas.

The victims include the ship's chief cook, 32-year-old Jacksonville resident LaShawn Rivera, who is the father of two children in Chesapeake and was engaged to their mother. The ship's chief engineer was 34-year-old Virginia Beach resident Richard Pusatere, a married father of one.

There were no recordings of Rivera or Pusatere, although they were mentioned by others.

The transcript shows Pusatere was in the engine room trying to get the main engine working again, but that "(h)e's just tellin' us the same thing. He can't do anything with this list," a crewman told the captain in reference to the ship leaning at an angle.

The hearings are scheduled to last through Feb. 17. The Coast Guard is investigating whether there was misconduct, inattention to duty or willful violation of the law associated with the ship's sinking, among other things.

The Coast Guard could turn over evidence to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. It also could seek civil penalties. New regulations also could be proposed as a result of what the Coast Guard learns.

The NTSB also is conducting its own investigation in conjunction with the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard hearing is being held in Jacksonville and will be streamed online at livestream.com/USCGInvestigations. It is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Updates also will be sent from the @uscoastguard Twitter account with the hashtags #CGMBI and #Elfaro.

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