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Day 4: Investigators Talk Safety Inspections With El Faro Surveyors

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The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation questioned American Bureau of Shipping employees in charge of vessel inspections Thursday.

ABS is a third party group in charge of most ship surveys and has been since the Coast Guard instituted the Alternate Compliance Program in 1995, which allows safety surveys to be conducted by a third party. The Coast Guard then reviews their work.

However, testimony by Coast Guard Captain John Mauger during the last hearing revealed that Coast Guard reviewers only double checked 5 percent of the 11,000 surveys conducted in 2014. Of that 5 percent, 38 percent had discrepancies.

Mark Larose inspected El Faro in June, but he was given just one day’s notice about his assignment instead of the two weeks required under federal guidelines. Marine Board of Investigation members questioned whether that was enough time to prepare.

Larose said the short notice wasn’t a problem.

“We like to get notification to come a little bit sooner just so we can purely schedule it, but as far as prepping for the survey, I think there’s no issue there,” he said.

ABS conducts two levels of inspections under the Alternate Compliance Program – annual and special. Annual inspections are regular surveys of 20 percent of a ship’s equipment every year for five years, while special inspections are conducted on specific pieces of machinery.

Larose said shipping companies rarely give the required two weeks’ notice for annual and special inspection requests, leading investigators to wonder just how up-to-date El Faro’s safety surveys were.

Still, Larose described the engine room as clean and the 40-year-old ship’s overall condition as good. He told investigators the crew was cooperative, answering all his questions and directing him to every piece of equipment he needed to inspect.

The condition of the aging vessel has been a major theme in both the board’s February and May hearings. During the first hearing, officials heard testimony detailing the “severely deteriorated” condition of the ship’s boilers, leading some maritime experts like Rod Sullivan to question whether the freighter was too old to sail.

The second hearing resumes tomorrow at 9 a.m.

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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.