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El Faro Hearing Day 4: Families Call On Congress To Pass Legislation

Ryan Benk

As the Coast Guard continues its hearing into the El Faro freighter sinking, families of lost crew members are asking Congress to help prevent future disasters.

They want more oversight and regulations for the cargo industry.

Family Members Speak

Rochelle Hamm’s husband was a cook on the El Faro cargo ship when it sank in October. Now she says her mission in life is making sure that kind of tragedy never happens again.

“What I want to have done is the same thing that happens in the airline industry. If there’s a snowstorm, the planes don't move, they don't slide on ice, they don't go through snow,” Hamm says. “Same thing needs to happen on the seas. Safety precautions, safety regulations, updated evaluations, updated inspections and third-party involvement.”

Hamm and her attorneys, Tallahassee-based Benjamin Crump and Jacksonville's Angelo Patacca, are asking Congress to initiate its own hearing into why the El Faro went down. They also want shipping companies to be required to use automated tracking technology and want all freighters equipped with the latest in weather-tracking devices.

“In 2015 we’ve got so much modern sophistication and technology that we should not be using these old-world methods to track ships and use as safety precautions when we could do so much better,” Crump says.

Communication, Authorization And Weather Tracking

The first week of the Coast Guard hearing has shown the 40-year-old El Faro used an outdated weather system, and the ship’s owner, TOTE Puerto Rico, wasn't using the latest communication technology to talk to the captain.

Families would also like more third-party involvement in certifying safety inspections. Crump announced the families’ petition Friday outside the Coast Guard hearing in Jacksonville.  

Crump and Patacca are also filing motions objecting to TOTE Services' and TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s attempt to limit its liability for the El Faro’s sinking. Though they wouldn’t divulge the details of pending litigation, they both said their motion would hinge on the fact that TOTE didn’t provide ships with the most up-to-date weather tracking equipment and didn’t stay in regular contact with their captains.

During Friday’s hearing, the ship’s weather tracking system and TOTE’s communication with the captain again took center stage.  

Company representatives have maintained that ship captains have the final say on what routes to take during heavy weather, but an August email quoted by investigators throughout the day’s testimony seemed to undercut that argument. TOTE Puerto Rico ship manager John Fisker-Anderson was questioned about an email he sent to El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson after the ship changed routes as a result of Hurricane Danny last summer. One word in the electronic communication stood out to the Marine Board of Investigation: "authorized." In the email Fisker-Anderson thanked Davidson for “the heads up” and used the term “authorized” to describe the company’s position on a route change that would add close to 200 miles to the ship’s course to Puerto Rico.

Fisker-Anderson insists the email is out of context and doesn't mean captains must ask permission before changing course — if they do, that means the company may have pressured Davidson into taking the less safe, shorter path that ultimately led to the deaths of the 33 crewmembers aboard in Hurricane Joaquin.

The email also raises the question: If digital communication was easily available, why wasn’t it used more? Coast Guard board members continued asking why shore-side execs relied only on so-called "noon updates" from Capt. Davidson to track the movement of the El Faro and why there were so few warnings about Hurricane Joaquin sent to the captain — especially considering there were hundreds of emailed alerts sent about earlier storms.

Investigators have found it difficult in four days to pin down exactly how the El Faro’s weather-tracking system worked.

Former El Faro third mate Alejandro Berrios gave a conflicting answer as to who had access to weather data beamed to the ship every six hours. Berrios described an outdated system where the weather data was received automatically but had to be manually uploaded to the routing system Bon Voyage. Several witnesses testified Bon Voyage does not automatically reroute the ship based on weather conditions in real time.

A Hands-Off Captain, Aging Safety Equipment And Propulsion Problems

Parts of the hearing Friday turned contentious as board members asked TOTE Puerto Rico’s John Fisker-Anderson about his opinion of Capt. Michael Davidson’s performance. In a heated exchange, the lawyer for Davidson’s widow, William Bennett, called on the board to stick to the facts after they mentioned several times an email Fisker-Anderson sent to colleagues. That email called Davidson an "inactive" captain who probably didn’t even know "what the ship’s decks looked like."

Fisker-Anderson said that was in reference to Davidson’s style and not a critique of his performance, although emails also showed he disagreed with promoting Davidson to pilot a newer class of natural-gas-powered ships.

Investigators also asked Fisker-Anderson about an incomplete employee evaluation for Davidson from 2014. On that form, Davidson received the highest marks in all areas, except for one which was left blank—cooperation with engineering staff.

Many of the week’s witnesses said they couldn’t recall there ever being anything more than the normal friction between the deck crew and engineers, but a picture of a schism between the captain and his engineering crew has began to emerge.

Engineering continued to dominate the conversation Friday when the board moved to questions regarding the ship’s boilers, which help power the ship’s propulsion. Witnesses described how boiler maintenance for the El Faro was ongoing and a history of problems was detailed. The most recent incident was when the El Faro lost propulsion due to human error, although TOTE Services  President Philip Greene said Wednesday he was unaware of that occurring. The vessel is believed to have lost propulsion before sinking in October.

Still, the El Faro had equipment problems with more than just the ship’s boilers. The Marine Board of Investigation dove into the possibility that safety equipment like life boats and survival suits were either not in working order or not readily accessible. Third mate Berrios told the board there were more than enough survival suits available and that they were easily accessible, but he did admit there were some problems with life boat davits—the machinery that helps lower the boats into the water.

The hearing continues Saturday.

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.