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El Faro Boiler Called 'Severely Deteriorated' Before Final Voyage


Software used to calculate a ship’s stability isn't always accurate. That’s what one witness told a Coast Guard panel investigating the October sinking of the El Faro freighter Thursday.

The weight and stability of the 790-foot vessel was questioned on the second-to-last day of testimony before the Marine Board of Investigation.

If a cargo ship’s weight is off balance, that could cause it to tip over in rough seas. To ensure that doesn't happen, cargo loaders use software called CargoMax to determine how to stack trailers full of goods.

But according to El Faro’s former chief mate, Jamie Torres, that program isn't always accurate. The crew was always able to account for discrepancies, though, and the program tested well during audits, he says.

“Everything that the CargoMax test cases showed, once I inputted the information, everything matched,” he said.

Still, Torres corroborated previous testimony that the software was not 100 percent accurate. He told investigators the crew was aware of some of differences, but he never considered it a safety hazard.

As chief mate, Torres was responsible for the loading and securing of cargo before leaving port, and he described the old, worn nature of the equipment used to hold cargo in place on the El Faro’s deck.

The chains, rings and sockets that help secure cargo trailers were badly rusted on the El Faro, and investigators questioned Torres about a work order he submitted requesting new rings that connect the chains to ship’s deck.

Torres says he was confident the ship’s owners and operators, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and TOTE Services, would respond promptly, but he couldn't say how long it normally took for the equipment to be replaced.

During one of Capt. Michael Davidson’s final calls to shore, he told a call center the vessel had a pretty bad “list,” or lean.  The board's questions were aimed at determining whether poor cargo securement may have  worsened already dubious ship stability—possibly leading the El Faro to tip over.

Next the board heard from Lt. Kimberly Biesner, a U.S. Coast Guard ship rider, who participated in a program with TOTE to help members get a taste of life aboard a ship.

She said she “felt like there was definitely tension” between engineering and deck crews. She also countered recent testimony calling Davidson a “hands-on” officer by saying she felt he mostly stuck to his office and was uninvolved.  She admitted she still saw Davidson as a "meticulous professional," a description uttered time and time again during the hearing.

Going back to the ship’s condition, the Marine Board of Investigation next called Luke Laakso, who works for Wallashek Boiler Inspectors. Although Laakso doesn't hold any certifications for inspecting ship boilers, he conducted some surveys while working as a boiler repairman.

Specifically, he surveyed the El Faro’s boilers, which help power the ship’s propulsion and failed during its last voyage in October. Laakso called the El Faro’s right boiler “severely deteriorated” only a month before it sank. He told investigators that had it been up to him, he would order it be repaired immediately, although ultimately “it was up to the ship’s owner.”

The El Faro was scheduled to be “laid up,” or parked on land, to continue retrofitting work for its transfer to the Alaskan trade, and Laakso was under the impression that the boiler repairs would take place then.

Still, Laakso agreed with TOTE lawyers that the boiler problems were a matter of “efficiency,” not safety, and that the vessel could still effectively navigate without one of its two boilers.

Before being dismissed, Laakso was also questioned about the engineering crew’s morale, to which he responded by calling them “mostly jovial.” Laakso said there was no animosity between the below-deck and above-deck crews, but Chief Mate Torres says some were disappointed they hadn’t been promoted to a newer vessel.

The hearing's final day is Friday.

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.