Final hearing begins in U.S. probe of deadly El Faro sinking

Reuters News
|
Posted: Feb 06, 2017 7:03 AM

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The U.S. investigation into the deadly sinking of a cargo ship during a 2015 hurricane enters its final hearing on Monday, with two weeks of testimony set to probe ship operations, weather reports and the El Faro's last alarms of distress.

The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation, convened only for the most serious accidents, is looking for evidence of negligence or misconduct in the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.

All 33 crew onboard died when the 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro sank during a hurricane on Oct. 1, 2015, two days after leaving Jacksonville, Florida on a cargo run to Puerto Rico.

Authorities meeting in Jacksonville now have key information about the ship's final hours from its voyage data recorder that had not been recovered when the panel held two rounds of hearings last year.

Transcripts from the device's recordings showed Captain Michael Davidson's uncertainty about the location of the storm. The veteran mariner from Maine told his chief mate that he was receiving conflicting reports just hours before the alarm sounded to abandon ship.

Concerns about delays in the weather reports reaching the El Faro came up at the panel's previous hearings.

Ultimately, the Coast Guard panel expects to issue a report that could make recommendations to prevent another disaster, though the agency has no timeline for its release. The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating and participating in the Coast Guard hearings.

"There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the cause of the sinking," said maritime lawyer Rod Sullivan, who represents the family of a deceased crew member and has been closely following the investigation.

He questioned the extent of efforts to get the crew into life-saving equipment as the ship was sinking. Discussion of lifeboats aboard the vessel is scheduled for next week.

During earlier hearings, executives of Tote Services, which managed the El Faro, called the disaster a tragic accident.

The company has reached financial settlements with 28 families, Tote said in a statement, declining further details.

"Since the loss of the El Faro, we have focused every effort on supporting the families of those on board. An important part of this support has entailed reaching fair and swift legal settlements for those who may choose them," Tote said in a statement last week.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and James Dalgleish)