The third and final Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the loss of the SIU-crewed cargo ship El Faro took place over two weeks beginning Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Florida.
On each day, the board heard testimony from more than a dozen witnesses, who spoke about various aspects of the state of the vessel and the crew’s actions. While many of the facts had been discussed at length during previous hearings, new testimonies were provided in light of the mid-December release of the El Faro’s voyage data recorder (VDR) transcripts by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Among those speaking before the board were shipping company executives and employees, Coast Guard personnel, and current and former mariners.
Naval architect Jeff Stettler with the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Center provided his analysis of the “plausible sequence” of the ship sinking: ship compartment No. 3 flooding; another compartment begins flooding through vent openings; the ship losing stability and partially capsizing with part of the deck awash; containers breaking lose from the deck; continued flooding through the vent openings; ship sinking; and ship returning upright because of fixed ballast.
Mark Gay, a former chief engineer aboard the El Faro, testified at length about the details of the vessel’s main engine lubrication system. Gay said that the El Faro’s crew would have done everything possible to get her turbines running, even when water began flooding into the engine room. “You have a lot of good people doing whatever needed to be done to get this thing going and get out of harm’s way,” he said.
Former El Faro Third Mate Alejandro Berrios took the stand to testify about the ship’s operating practices and safety culture. While long hours were not uncommon, Berrios said that the El Faro’s captain, Michael Davidson, would offer to stand watches if any of the mates were feeling fatigued – even if they were meeting their required hours of rest. This was a common theme, with every witness that was asked defending the ability and dedication of the El Faro’s crew.
During the second week of the hearings, the fate of the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Yunque, was clarified by Tote Maritime Puerto Rico’s Director of Operations Lee Peterson. The vessel was scrapped in 2016, and according to Peterson, it was purely a “commercial decision.”
“My understanding is that it was … based on the conversion of the Orca Class vessels,” Peterson stated. “Originally the Orca Class was going to be converted to run on natural gas, [but] the manufacturer of the engines came back and said that we could not do that. Replacement of the engines required us to go to a foreign shipyard, which was a lengthy process. We needed a ship to fill in. Subsequently, the manufacturer ... said that we could convert the engines that we had in place, so that negated our need to use the El Yunque on the Alaska service.”
Concurrent with the hearings, Tote Maritime completed the installation of the second phase of their El Faro memorial park at Dames Point in Jacksonville. The memorial walk has been completed, with a bollard added for each member of the crew, along with a personalized message from their families and loved ones. The park and memorial lighthouse were formally dedicated on the one-year anniversary of the sinking last October.
After an exhaustive two weeks of testimonies, the final round of hearings came to a close. “I believe we have gathered the factual evidence necessary to proceed with our analysis,” said Marine Board of Investigation Chairman Capt. Jason Neubauer. “I’d like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the parties of interest, government agencies, maritime organizations, company representatives, merchant mariners, and individual witnesses who dedicated their time and resources to this monumental endeavor. On behalf of the entire board, I would like to express our deepest condolences to the friends, shipmates, and families of the mariners who were lost at sea during this accident. It’s also important for investigators to observe the emotional toll, as it strengthens our resolve, daily…. Your feedback and suggestions have aided the overall investigation, and your commitment to preventing a similar tragedy in the future is noble and appreciated.”
Throughout these hearings, SIU Assistant Vice President Archie Ware and the families of the mariners have been a constant presence. From the families bringing photos of the crew to display prominently, to designating 33 empty chairs as reserved for the final day of the hearing, the investigation never lost sight of those affected by the tragedy.
“I want to make sure that no one is forgotten, especially my brother is not forgotten,” said Glen Jackson, brother of AB Jack Jackson. “They were beloved crew members: sisters, brothers, sons, daughters. It’s not just a statistic.”
Final reports from the agencies involved in the investigation will be released, but at press time there was no indication of when those documents will be available.
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