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Day 3: Investigators Dig Into How El Faro Crew Tracked Weather

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Updated at 4:50 p.m.

The Marine Board of Investigation Wednesday questioned weather tracking company representatives over the accuracy and timeliness of the data it provides to shipping companies.

Applied Weather Technologies representatives Jerry Hale and Rich Brown said the company provided the TOTE organization, which owned and operated El Faro, with a program called Bon Voyage for at least five years. The program collects storm tracking information from the National Weather Service, which publishes forecasts every two to three hours, and enhances it with its own data before sending the information to a participating ship via email.

But by the time a ship uploads the information to its weather tracking system, it can be as old as nine hours, they said during testimony.

While system upgrades can bring that turnaround time down to one hour, El Faro was using an outdated, bare-bones version of Bon Voyage and didn't have that data available faster than the nine hours, they said.

Human error exacerbated the already prolonged timetable– causing El Faro crewmembers to rely on a Hurricane Joaquin track that was 10 hours old just a day before it sailed into the category four storm and sank, Hale said. He told investigators he didn’t know what caused the company to send El Faro outdated data.

“Enhanced wind and waves were along the track showed the low pressure system in the global model moving along the storm track properly, but for some reason — an anomaly that we have not reproduced or identified — the tropical storm file was not updated,” Hale said.

The speed El Faro received weather information is important because of Hurricane Joaquin’s erratic and quick directional changes, Hale said. And although AWT representatives said its program was safe and designed to help ships stay as far away as 50 miles from a storm’s radius.

Later in the hearing, Jim Wagstaff, vice president of TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico — a subsidiary of TOTE — was questioned about the process for a ship being rerouted. He offered a similar response to TOTE Puerto Rico ship manager John Fisker-Anderson, who testified at the first hearing that captains have final say in route changes.

The Coast Guard later questioned Wagstaff about a cargo loading incident that took place weeks before the El Faro sank. While the ship was loading cargo in Puerto Rico, Davidson had to temporarily call off the process when the ship began leaning too much to one side.

Investigators also cited emails with complaints about loading terminal manager for TOTE, Ronald Rodriguez, in Jacksonville detailing his communication and interpersonal issues with other employees.  

Wagstaff told the panel the issues were administrative — not safety-related — and said he hadn’t initiated any internal investigation into whether the El Faro was properly loaded in Jacksonville before departing to Puerto Rico. 

Testimony Tuesday included Coast Guard investigator testimony from Jack Hearn, the former captain of El Faro and its sister ship, El Morro, who said his employer, TOTE, ignored safety concerns and asked him to resign.

The hearing resumes tomorrow at 9 a.m.  

Follow WJCT reporter Ryan Benk on twitter.

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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.