El Faro Investigation Closes With Release Of Coast Guard’s Final Report

Oct 1, 2017

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation Sunday released its final report into the 2015 sinking of El Faro. The freighter left Jacksonville’s port for San Juan, Puerto Rico at the tail end of September and sank after it lost propulsion and sailed into the path of category 4 Hurricane Joaquin Oct. 1. 

The report comes after six weeks of hearings at the River City’s Prime Osborn Convention Center and identifies 39 recommendations to prevent another tragedy, including requiring more Coast Guard oversight on commercial shipping inspections, no longer exempting older vessels from stability standards or from using closed, self-propelled lifeboats — a requirement for new ships since 1986.

Around 50 deep water vessels still use open lifeboats.

Investigators are also calling for civil penalties against the ship’s owner and operator — TOTE Maritime — for a lax adherence to safety regulations and not providing enough shore side support to its sailors.

“I don’t have the exact amount, but I think it’s in the neighborhood of $80,000,” Board Chairman Captain Neubauer told reporters of how much TOTE may expect to be assessed in fines. 

He said criminal charges weren’t recommended because investigators found the company’s guilt to be “standard noncompliance.”

In a brief statement emailed Sunday, a TOTE spokesman Darrell Wilson again expressed regret over the death of El Faro’s 33 sailors and promised a thorough examination of the report.

“The El Faro and its crew were lost on our watch and for this we will be eternally sorry.  Nothing we can do will bring back the remarkable crew, but everything we do can work to ensure that those who go to sea, serving us all, are in ever safer environments,” Wilson wrote. “The report, which we and so many others… is another piece of this sacred obligation that everyone who works upon the sea must study and embrace… We are committed to working with every stakeholder on these comments and recommendations.”

TOTE, like all other parties to the investigation — ship classification society and inspector American Bureau of Shipping, the Coast Guard, El Faro Captain Michael Davidson’s widow and Herbert Engineering— will now have 30 days to study and contest the report’s findings. All parties of interest have been identified in one capacity or another as contributing somehow to the vessel’s sinking.

The American Bureau of Shipping and the 1996 Alternate Compliance Program, which allows the bulk of ship surveys to be conducted by private classification societies, was identified as needing stricter oversight from Coast Guard inspectors. During the first hearing, testimony revealed Coast Guard inspectors only reviewed 5 percent of ship inspections in 2014 and 38 percent of them had discrepancies. 

“I think the older ships highlight the need to have a very robust regulatory compliance oversight program. Vessels can operate a long time, but they have to have that oversight from the company all the way up to the Coast Guard to make sure they’re operating safely,” Capt. Neubauer said Sunday, adding that older ships should also not be exempt from updated safety regulations.

The report also identifies the need for each sailor to be equipped with his or her own beacon that sends their location to rescuers and that no work on a ship’s engine, boilers or hull should be conducted by uncertified engineers, as was the case with some of El Faro’s conversion updates.

El Faro’s Captain Michael Davidson is also identified as being negligent in his leadership of his crew. Davidson was called on three times in the lead up to the vessel’s demise and was asleep when the ship first hit trouble. Testimony from the hearings painted two principle pictures of Davidson: That he was a hands-off master and was anxious he’d lose his position. Both factors were seen as contributing to his poor decisions, though some former crewmembers vouched for Davidson’s care and professionalism.

In a statement to the press, Bill Bennett, lawyer for Davidson’s widow, said the family opposes some of the report's findings.

“We have only had a brief opportunity to review the Coast Guard's report, however, based on this preliminary review, we believe there are serious omissions of critical facts and faulty analysis.  Although he was the Captain of the El Faro and thus responsible for the safety of the vessel there are many other key factors that primarily caused the sinking of the vessel and thus we do not agree with all aspects of the USCG report.” he wrote.

Neubauer said had Davidson been alive, the board would’ve recommended action be taken against his captain’s license.

The board doesn’t spare the Coast Guard from its findings either. The report found the Coast Guard needed a better system for tracking at-risk vessels and needed to do better overseeing ship inspections, specifically it should have labeled some modifications as “major conversions,” which would have triggered stricter monitoring.

“We’re the last safety net in that detection,” he said.

Unlike previous marine investigations, Neubauer said the sheer weight of such a report necessitated its release before the commandant gives the final word on which findings he agrees with, disagrees with or agrees with partially. 

The two-year investigation and 200-page report is the largest and most significant since the board’s investigation into the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, said Nebauer.

“For the entire board, I think everyone on the board has told me that this is was the most important thing that they feel like they’re going to do in their Coast Guard career and they’re very hopeful we can make some change with the recommendations in the report,” he said.

A report authored by the National Transportation Safety Board is expected by the end of this year.

Ryan Benk can be reached at rbenk@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.

Tweets from Sunday's El Faro news conference: