New hearings to probe for more details of El Faro sinking

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A second round of investigative hearings into the sinking of the freighter El Faro starts Monday and will seek new information about the vessel’s stability and whether there were mistakes in weather forecasting or cargo loading before the ship’s final voyage.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation begins interviewing witnesses in Jacksonville, Florida, at 9 a.m.

The ship lost propulsion and sank Oct. 1 after getting caught in a Category 4 hurricane while sailing between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. All 33 aboard died in the worst commercial maritime disaster for a U.S.-flagged ship since the Marine Electric sank off the coast of Virginia in 1983.

Search crews recently discovered the El Faro’s voyage data recorder at the wreckage site near the Bahamas in 15,000 feet of water, but they still have not recovered it.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which will also participate in the hearings, said it is still planning a recovery mission for the device, which could hold recordings from the bridge and data key to understanding final decisions made during the last voyage.

The Coast Guard says a third, future round of hearings will explore the recorder’s data if the device is recovered.

In January, the first round of investigative hearings looked into the actions of the crew and officials with the El Faro’s owner Tote Services Inc. before and during the voyage.

Testimony showed that the 790-foot freighter’s captain, Michael Davidson, had taken a slower-but-safer route during Tropical Storm Erika in August 2015, after the company sent out a weather alert.

No such alerts or discussions of the weather were found for the period before the stronger Hurricane Joaquin, but emails showed that the day before the ship sank, Davidson had asked his superiors about changing to the slower route home.

While he was authorized to do so by a company official, Davidson chose not to take the slower route, and Tote officials testified that the final decision was his.

Testimony also showed that Tote officials did not actively chart weather systems that may pose a safety concern for the company’s fleet. Capt. John Lawrence, who was the last to speak with Davidson, didn’t understand the depth of the El Faro’s troubles until after Davidson’s final call ashore to report that he was in distress.

Lawrence testified that, after the call, his office finally charted the course of the storm along with the ship’s last known coordinates. Only then did he realize Joaquin was bearing down on the El Faro.

Since the El Faro’s sinking, Tote has upgraded the weather tracking systems available to its fleet.

Among the information to be addressed at the new hearings is whether the ship was loaded properly with its heavy cargo, and what weather forecasts the captain and crew had prior and during the final voyage.

Most of the crewmembers were from Florida, and others were from Georgia, Maine, Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee, Massachusetts and New York, the U.S. Coast Guard said. At least three crewmembers were from Poland, according to the Coast Guard.

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