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Coast Guard Begins Second Hearing Into El Faro Cargo Ship Sinking

The El Faro cargo freighter that sunk October.

Coast Guard investigators are holding a new round of hearings in Jacksonville to take a deeper look into what led to the October sinking of cargo freighter El Faro.

Investigators talked safety procedure, the ship's condition and the crew’s professionalism with three witnesses Monday. The first hearing in February.

This time, the Marine Board of Investigation will try to recreate the ship’s final voyage instead of examining the El Faro’s 40-year history.

Eric Bryson, who pilots cargo ships out of JAXPORT, said El Faro Captain Michael Davidson told him he intended to avoid the powerful Hurricane Joaquin.

“As I told the (National Transportation Safety Board) I don't recall what I said. Something in general about the storm and Captain Davidson replied ‘we’re just going to go and shoot under it,’ ” Bryson said.

Of 27 witnesses expected to testify this week, 13 are experts on cargo loading. Investigators will ask them about the stability of the ship when it sailed through Hurricane Joaquin.

TOTE Services, the ship’s owner and operator, had to pick up additional freight after another shipping company exited the market. Former El Faro Captain Eric Axelsson also told investigators he’d sometimes be asked by his employer to carry extra containers.

“That’s what we’re in the business for — to move cargo," Axelsson said. "So if he had a box he wanted to put on ... that’s what you do."

Still, he said he always made sure containers were properly loaded and never felt pressured to carry more than he thought safe.

Axelsson also said he never felt compelled to sacrifice safety in order to make a deadline. But some family members of those lost at sea theorized Davidson may have been forced to take an unsafe path and carry more cargo in order to keep his job.

The ship’s stability has been a major sticking point because it’s possible the ship was “listing” to one side when it lost power in severe weather and sank.

El Faro was packed to the brim with containers, and severe weather could have tipped the heavy ship over when its power failed near the Bahamas.

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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.