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Final Moments Of El Faro Detailed In Newly Released Transcripts

VDR.jpg
National Transportation Safety Board
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The transcript from the voyage data recorder of the ill-fated El Faro cargo freighter shows the captain refused to change course before the ship crossed paths with a hurricane and sank last year.

The ship’s second and third mates urged Captain Michael Davidson to change course further south three times on the night before and morning of El Faro’s sinking in October of 2015.

Davidson, who was aware of Hurricane Joaquin’s threat before departure, had already agreed once to alter the ship’s route, steering it, he believed, just south of the storm. The ship eventually sailed just north of Joaquin’s eye.

Glen Jackson, brother to lost crew member Jack Jackson, refuses to solely blame his late brother’s boss.

Bob Spohrer is representing Jackson and his sister Jill Jackson-d’Entermont in their lawsuit against El Faro owner and operator TOTE Maritime.

“There’s a general consensus that the culture at TOTE was to get the ship to port as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible. That’s how they make their money,” he said. “There was some feeling about a compulsion on part of the captain and the crew to continue the voyage into what was a developing, very dangerous storm.”

Some of the crew’s family that made their way to Washington, D.C. for the release of the transcripts were more critical of the captain’s decisions, though.

"I would have thrown the captain overboard and tried to save myself and the ship," Patricia Quammie said. "Being the captain, I guess he decided that he was on the best course. I'm pretty sure when working for the captain, you are loyal to him. So they just decided to go whatever way he went."

Looking back, family members said it's easy to see how things could have been done differently.

"It shouldn't take six or seven calls to make (the decision to change course)," said Frank Hamm's widow, Rochelle Hamm. "Had he done it sooner, we wouldn't be here."

Only some of the families’ questions were answered by the National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday. They'll now wait for the full investigation to be completed.

"Us, as families, we are seeing a whole different picture of the maritime industry," Hamm said.

The Jackson siblings, along with eight other families, allege TOTE was criminally negligent in the deaths of 33 crewmembers. Crewmembers from 25 families have already reached settlements with the company.

TOTE argued in Coast Guard hearings this year the decision not to sail or change course was ultimately up to the captain.

Spohrer and his clients agree, but they say a competitive company culture, deteriorating vessel and safety equipment, and substandard weather tracking technology all culminated in the El Faro’s fate.

NTSB officials detailed how the ship’s weather tracking system worked on Tuesday: The captain had access to a digital tracking system with information as much as six hours old and the crew had access to up-to-the-minute text updates, but had to manually plot coordinates on a map.

Spohrer said he expects to be in court May of 2018.

The NTSB said the VDR transcript is the longest it’s ever produced. The Coast Guard, armed with the 500-page document, is set to begin a final hearing at Jacksonville’s Prime Osborn Center in February.

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