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Final El Faro Hearing, Day 1: Sailor Fatigue, Ship's Condition Questioned

El Faro hull underwater
The National Transportation Safety Board
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Federal investigators want to know whether sailors aboard the cargo ship El Faro were well-rested enough to deal with the hurricane that sank the freighter in 2015.

That line of questioning opened the Coast Guard’s third and final hearing into what led to the deaths of all 33 crew members aboard. The hearing continues in Jacksonville. 

The Marine Board of Investigation is looking into a number of human factors that could’ve affected decisions made at sea. Fatigue is just one of them. But former El Faro Chief Mate Randy Thompson told investigators he never felt fatigue was a serious issue, nor did he hear crew members say so.

However, audio transcripts from the ship’s final hours captured one sailor telling her family she was always tired. And others talked about a chief mate repeatedly falling asleep while on watch without being disciplined.

Another portion of the transcript detailed one sailor’s lack of sleep after running out of Nyquil.

Board member Keith Fawcett pressed Thompson on this issue, questioning whether the merchant marine culture normalizes overworking.

“Often I hear sailors that fatigue is part of the life of the sailor. Is that your experience?” Fawcett asked.

“No, sir,” Thompson replied.

Although Thompson disagreed with Fawcett’s characterization, he did acknowledge TOTE Services Inc., which owned and operated El Faro, has instituted a new digital system to track rest hours since the ship's sinking. The system alerts a ship’s captain when crew members are in danger of dipping below the 77 hours of weekly rest required by federal law.

Questions about “human factors” didn’t stop there. Investigators also peppered Thompson with queries regarding El Faro Captain Michael Davidson’s leadership style and relationship with his crew. Specifically, the board focused on a couple of interpersonal conflicts covered in past hearings – one involving a drunk sailor and another verbal altercation.

Thompson explained the company’s “zero-tolerance policy” for intoxication and agreed with previous testimony saying Davidson would often relieve tired crew members himself when they needed rest.

Much of the Coast Guard investigation in previous hearings has focused on Davidson’s leadership style and whether he or his employer had the final say in changing a ship’s course. Thompson told the board a captain can make quick decisions even if just woken up by a call from his crew.

Davidson declined to change course three times after being called by two different crew members during the vessel’s final voyage, according to audio from the ship’s VDR.

Ship condition questioned

That audio also showed some crew members didn’t feel comfortable airing concerns about the ship’s safety at company meetings.

The condition of the 40-year-old freighter has been a major point of contention since the start of the first Marine Board hearing. The ship had been altered numerous times throughout the course of its life, and weather monitoring equipment aboard was known to malfunction.

To speak to the ship’s structural condition Monday, the board called one of its own, Dr. Jeff Stettler.

Stettler is a researcher and architect for the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center and the lead on the investigation into the whether the El Faro met its structural and loading guidelines.

According to his study of El Faro, the ship “met all regulatory and classification society requirements,” but there was a difference between what the ship’s CargoMax software anticipated and what the reality of the ship’s cargo weight and stability actually was.

CargoMax software helps captains plot the loading of a ship to ensure that it doesn’t lean, or “list,” too much to one side or the other. Stettler said the El Faro’s crew may have been overly reliant on the software that in previous hearings was shown to be somewhat inaccurate.

Stettler’s assessment also found that at least two compartments were flooded, though he said only one breach would’ve been sufficient to sink the aging ship in heavy weather, and ocean water washed into the ship from two distinct areas — ventilation systems and the punctured hull.

As old as the ship was, Stettler told investigators, it was still within legal requirements for vessels of that age. However, El Faro would fail inspections if it was judged by stricter requirements for more modern ships.

El Faro sank after losing power and drifting into the path of category 3 Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas.

The final hearing into El Faro’s sinking will continue until Feb. 17.

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