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Maritime Attorney On El Faro Recommendation: Upgrades To Lifeboats Won’t Be Cheap

Fathom Systems
One model of self-propelled, enclosed lifeboats new ships are currently required to carry.

The National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday handed down 53 recommendations to various organizations for how they could beef up safety two years after cargo ship El Faro sank in the Caribbean, killing all 33 aboard.

Among them was a requirement for new emergency equipment — tools that maritime expert Rod Sullivan said won’t come cheap.

On WJCT’s First Coast Connect  Wednesday, Sullivan told host Melissa Ross the 33 crew members of ill-fated El Faro would have had more than a fighting chance had they been equipped with self-propelled, enclosed lifeboats.

“There was actually a question from one of the airline pilots on the NTSB — ‘well would this have guaranteed their safety?’ I can answer that question,” he said. “If you’re in one of these enclosed lifeboats and you get off the ship, you’re going to survive. It doesn’t matter what the weather is.”

The federal safety body is recommending requiring all ships carry the new lifeboats, although the NTSB found that Captain Michael Davidson gave the order to abandon ship too late to be certain whether crew could have safely escaped even had El Faro had the upgraded emergency equipment.

El Faro and 40 others like it working in the industry still carry older models. That’s because ships over a certain age were exempted from an existing law requiring the new lifeboats.

Sullivan said for a ship the size of El Faro, the price tag for the new equipment is not insignificant.

“The best information I’ve got is that the boats themselves are about $100,000 each and they seat about 10 to 12 people. So, you would need three at least on a ship like the El Faro to accommodate the crew,” he said. “The larger cost is the modification of the ship and that’s about $250,000 per boat. So, you’re looking at a cost of $750,000 to $1 million.”

In addition to the lifeboats, the NTSB is recommending shipping companies also equip mariners with special location beacons that send gps coordinates to search and rescue teams. If all 33 El Faro crew members had one, that would’ve cost the company TOTE Services between just under $10,000 and just over $13,000. 

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

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.