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Computer Glitches Hampered Initial Search For El Faro


Coast Guard rescuers resorted to paper maps during the El Faro search effort in October. That’s because glitches in new vessel-tracking software kept crashing the operation’s onshore computers.

That’s according to testimony investigators heard in Jacksonville Wednesday.

Coast Guard Software Problems

Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Chancery was working in Miami when he got word the El Faro was in trouble. He told the Marine Board of Investigation he wasn't immediately alarmed because he didn’t know the ship was sinking.

After failing to contact the ship’s captain, Chancery realized the El Faro was in serious trouble. But the Coast Guard’s ship-tracking system kept crashing. By the time onshore rescue officials finished plotting the El Faro’s location with paper maps, the ship was in the middle of Hurricane Joaquin.

Still, Chancery says the computer glitches onshore didn’t affect the Coast Guard’s ability to physically react to the emergency; the weather did.

“As far as launching an asset, getting somebody out there, formulating a response,  I don’t think the loss of this system would affect that at all,” Chancery says.

But the closest Coast Guard rescue ships were hundreds of miles away, and Air Force planes couldn't fly low enough because of the weather.

Chancery also says he tried contacting Bahamian authorities, but the nation’s navy had already anchored in Key West ahead of the hurricane.

The same went for a commercial vessel in the area. The Emerald Express was anchored around the Bahamas riding out the storm.

Ship’s Data Recorder Had Expired Batteries

Moving into the second half of testimony Wednesday, investigators pivoted from search and rescue back to the condition of the El Faro’s equipment, specifically the ship’s voice data recorder, or “black box.”

John Fletcher of Northrop Grumman Sperry Marine, the company who manufactured and oversaw the maintenance of the recorders, told the Marine Board of Investigation the El Faro’s VDR was a resilient piece of technology that could survive in depths of 20,000 feet underwater – the El Faro sank in 15,000 feet of water.

The man who installed the El Faro’s recorder, Jerry Michel, also told investigators that the recorder “was not a toy” and saved high-quality recordings of conversations along the ship’s bridge.

However, Fletcher says,  following the ship’s ill-fated voyage, his company went back to check over VDR inspection reports, and he was surprised to find a December 2014 inspection that approved the freighter’s recorder even though the battery was set to expire in May.

Maritime regulations require VDR batteries to be working at the time of inspection, but Sperry Marine’s policy is to make sure the recorder’s power source has at least a year of juice left. The employee who inspected El Faro’s VDR was suspended pending extra training. A VDR battery is supposed to help power the recorder’s pinger, or navigational beacon that helps investigators locate its final resting place.

The National Transportation Safety Board originally suspended its search for the VDR in mid-November but has reconvened its effort following the insistence of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).  The NTSB was unable to find the capsule containing the recorder where it was originally welded, but Northrop Grumman’s Jerry Michel told the Coast Guard that had nothing to do with the quality of installation, telling investigators, “I don’t know how much stronger it could’ve been.”

Cargo Loading, Stability And Captain’s Style

Former Chief Mate of the El Faro Bryan Vagts continued the conversation regarding the El Faro’s equipment Wednesday, telling investigators  that “at first glance she was old, but very sturdy, thick steel. She rode really well.”

The first half of Vagts’s testimony centered on the technically complicated calculations he’d make by hand and using computer software to make sure the ship’s cargo was evenly distributed. He said there would sometimes be disparities between the cargo loading software, Cargo Max, and the calculations made by hand, but that it the difference between the two was negligible.

Vagts also contradicted previous testimony from TOTE executives that painted Captain Michael Davidson’s style as "hands-off." Instead, Vagts said, his captain “wasn’t shy” and that in his brief experience, "He was hands on,” making sure cargo was secure and preparing for every voyage by walking the deck.

When asked by investigators, Vagts also pushed back against claims of low morale on the ship and anger from officers who weren't promoted to newer, Marlin Class ships. Vagts said he knew there was disappointment but not necessarily resentment. He said communication between all departments on the ship was “very, very good” and didn’t see TOTE’s management decisions as affecting anyone all that much.

Vagts served for 24 days on the El Faro while training to take a position as chief mate aboard one of TOTE Maritime’s newer vessels.

The Marine Board of Investigation continues its hearing Thursday. The evidence regarding the initial search and rescue mission for the El Faro can be found here.

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.