By Letitia Stein
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. investigators on Friday concluded two weeks of hearings into the sinking of cargo ship El Faro in a hurricane last fall that included reports the vessel had outdated weather data and testimony from some of the last people to see it.
The Coast Guard panel probing the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades was told that the ship's captain intended to avoid a brewing storm in the Caribbean when he departed on a routine cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico.
All 33 crew onboard died when the 790-foot (241-meter) ship sank off the Bahamas during a hurricane on Oct. 1, two days after leaving Jacksonville, Florida, before the storm intensified into a hurricane.
The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation, convened for the most serious disasters, examined cargo operations, weather forecasts and regulatory oversight during its second set of hearings on the El Faro tragedy.
The panel meeting in Jacksonville learned the ship had received outdated weather information as the storm intensified, due to delays in data coming from its weather reporting service. Information arriving at the ship was hours behind advisories coming from national storm forecasters, local media reported.
Yet given the unreliability of Hurricane Joaquin forecasts, more timely data may not have saved El Faro's crew, noted Rod Sullivan, a maritime lawyer closely following the hearings.
He said the investigators, who were looking for the cause of the sinking as well as evidence of negligence or misconduct, did not appear to have found clear answers.
"I think they are still very much casting about in the dark for the exact sequence of events that led the vessel to sink," said Sullivan, who represents the family of a deceased crew member.
The investigative panel included a representative from the National Transportation Safety Board who sharply questioned an executive for the ship's operating company on Thursday, asking for his thoughts on management failures involved in the tragedy.
Peter Keller, executive vice president of Tote Inc., responded that he could not identify any specific failure.
"This tragic loss is all about an accident," he said.
Investigators plan a third set of hearings at a yet unscheduled date. By then, they hopes to have evidence from the ship's voyage data recorder, which may contain information from the ship's final hours. The recorder has been located in 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) of water off the Bahamas, but authorities have not yet been able to retrieve it.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard panel could make recommendations on safety standards to prevent a similar disaster in the future.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)