By Barbara Liston
(Reuters) - The widow of one of the 33 crew members killed when the El Faro sank in a hurricane last fall called on Friday for stricter oversight of decisions by shipping companies and their captains to sail in adverse weather.
Rochelle Hamm's husband, 49-year-old Frank Hamm of Baltimore, died on Oct. 1 when the El Faro went down off the Bahamas in the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
The U.S. Coast Guard began hearings this week to investigate the sinking. At a press conference outside the hearing site in Jacksonville, Florida, Rochelle Hamm said U.S. lawmakers should establish third-party oversight of shipping companies similar to the role of air traffic controllers for planes.
Executives of Tote Services, which operated the El Faro, testified this week that ship captains have full responsibility for deciding when it is safe to sail and the route.
They said it was Captain Michael Davidson's call to depart Jacksonville with a storm brewing in the Atlantic, and said they did not closely monitor the El Faro's cargo run to Puerto Rico as a tropical storm strengthened into Hurricane Joaquin.
Hamm said in a phone interview that she came up with the idea she pitched in a Change.org petition for tighter safety regulations after northern airports closed and thousands of flights were canceled in January during a snowstorm.
“Nothing moved," said Hamm, 44. "You didn’t see planes coming in or going out."
Hamm is among the family members of dead crew members who have sued Tote in federal court.
“We feel strongly that this company had knowledge of the oncoming storm," said Hamm’s lawyer, Angelo Patacca. "If information is available, you can’t just stick your head in the sand.”
Davidson, a veteran mariner from Maine, reported the 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro lost propulsion and took on water before it sank. After the vessel was lost, the company bought a subscription for a bad-weather routing system for its ships, Tote Services' president, Philip Greene, testified this week.
The Coast Guard's hearings continue through next Thursday with testimony expected from other Tote employees, a ship inspection company that worked on the El Faro and Coast Guard personnel.
The investigation could result in civil charges. If any criminal actions are found, that evidence would be turned over to the Justice Department for consideration of criminal charges, Coast Guard spokeswoman Alana Ingram said.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)