Before the freighter El Faro sank, the captain was warned by a text message from his vacationing second mate that a storm looming offshore was forecast to become a hurricane, according to testimony Thursday.
Second Mate Charles Baird testified before a U.S. Coast Guard panel in Jacksonville investigating the ship's sinking last October. All 33 aboard died after the vessel lost propulsion and was mauled by the winds of Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm. The AP covered the hearing via a live webcast.
Baird said he was at home when he saw news of the storm on television and texted El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson to make sure he was aware of it.
"He came back to me and said yes, and thank you," Baird said. "When I saw it had developed into a Category 1 hurricane, I texted him again (to ask) what his plan was going to be."
Davidson texted that he planned to follow his normal route but would skirt "under," or south, of Hurricane Joaquin, Baird said.
The captain had used a different approach during another strong storm just about a month earlier, Baird said. Davidson had rerouted to a slower, safer route in August during Tropical Storm Erika after a company alert was sent out. No company alert was sent out for Joaquin, and officials with the company that owns the ships, Tote Services Inc., have said they don't routinely send out warnings.
Baird said it was his idea to sail the slower route through the Old Bahama Channel during Erika. A crew of Polish sailors was aboard the El Faro, working to prepare it for its upcoming move to the Alaska trade, he said, and the slower route was expected to be smoother so they could work.
A Polish crew was aboard the El Faro when it set sail during Joaquin too, yet the more direct route closer to the storm was chosen. While en route to Puerto Rico, Davidson emailed company officials the day before the El Faro sank, asking if he could take the slower route home. A company official said yes.
The El Faro sank in 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas.
The captain of El Faro's sister ship the El Yunque said he felt a "pull and desire' to help the rescue efforts after the freighter went missing. But with Joaquin bearing down it was too dangerous -- he had chosen a route farther to the south.
When the weather improved, Capt. Earl Loftfield described an "eerie calm" as he and his crew sailed through the sunken vessel's debris field. There were no signs of survivors, only oil bubbling from where the ship went down, he said.
Testimony also revealed that the El Faro may have been sailing without the aid of a wind speed gauge called an anemometer. Baird said it had not been working for a couple of months before El Faro's last voyage.
A broken wind speed gauge presented few difficulties for experienced mariners, Baird said.
"I can probably estimate it within 5 knots," he said.
Not much could dissuade Tote's captains from setting sail and getting their cargo delivered, Baird said. While arriving on time was important, Baird said there were no penalties for late delivery.
"Was there ever any instance where did you not sail from port because of adverse, bad weather," asked Capt. Michael Kucharski, a National Transportation Safety Board marine accident investigator participating in the panel.
"No, we always sailed," Baird said.
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