Third Hearing Into El Faro Sinking Wraps Up In Jacksonville

Feb 17, 2017

A year after convening its first hearing into the sinking of cargo freighter El Faro, the U.S. Coast Guard wrapped up its third and final fact-finding session Friday in Jacksonville.

It could be another year or more before investigators issue recommendations.

The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation held six weeks of hearings examining El Faro CaptainMichael Davidson’s leadership, the ship’s condition and company policy. After the hearing, Board Chair Captain Jason Neubauer described the scope of the probe.

“This is one of the largest investigations in Coast Guard history. I had been involved in some formal hearings before, but nothing of this magnitude,” he said. “I think a similar type of Marine Board of Investigation was Deepwater Horizon and that was seven hearings, but I wasn't a part of that.”

The marine board held the hearings and issued its report to the Coast Guard commandant within a year.  

Neubauer said the board’s analysis could take a year or longer before it makes the final determination and submits its recommendations on maritime regulation to the Coast Guard commandant.

El Faro’s investigation is taking significantly longer to complete because of the time spent on finding the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder and transcribing 26 hours of recorded material, which Neubauer said was essential.

“It was very important. It’s going to help us really tighten up on some of the facts that we would’ve had to speculate on, certainly, if we hadn’t had it,” he said.

After the second hearing, Neubauer said the board was prepared to move forward with the investigation without the VDR. But after recovering it in August officials had a chance to hear the crew in their own words.

Throughout the final hearing, the board leaned heavily on the VDR’s transcript. The voices of captain and crew gave the board an important glimpse into how they felt about safety, their employer, the ship’s condition and each other.

The final hearing closed with the words of the captain’s widow Theresa Davidson. Her attorney William Bennett read a letter she wrote while she listened on by phone.

“Throughout the course of this investigation you learned a little bit about Michael as a ship’s captain. Crewmembers, both licensed and unlicensed, who sailed with Michael described him as meticulous, concerned for safety, caring for the welfare of his crew and a true professional,” he read through tears.

Theresa Davidson also thanked the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board for their work, and ship owner and operator TOTE Services for its cooperation.

The NTSB is conducting its own separate investigation and will issue its own recommendations. It’s still possible another MBI hearing could be called if new evidence is found.

El Faro’s 33 crewmembers were killed when the vessel lost propulsion and drifted into the path of Hurricane Joaquin in October of 2015.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at rbenk@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.