A second round of U.S. Coast Guard investigative hearings into the sinking of the freighter El Faro ended Friday, closing a sometimes contentious proceeding during which the disaster was characterized by one investigator as "a colossal failure" of management before he apologized and took back the comment.
The testimony in Jacksonville, Florida, ended after two weeks, during which a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said "few would dispute" that the loss of the El Faro represented a management failure by Tote Services, Inc., the company that owned and operated the vessel. A third round of hearings will be scheduled for later this year.
The 790-foot El Faro sank in 15,000 feet of water after losing propulsion while sailing to Puerto Rico from Jacksonville and getting caught in Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1. All 33 aboard died.
During Thursday's session, NTSB lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy asked Tote executive vice president Peter Keller to describe management failures that led to the ship's loss.
"Now sir, many would argue and few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faro and its cargo, and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard the El Faro, represents a colossal failure in the management of the companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro," Roth-Roffy said.
"Could you please share ... your thoughts about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro?"
Keller called the sinking "a tragic accident" and said Tote is looking to the board and NTSB to identify a cause.
"At this point in time, I, for one, cannot identify any failure that would have led to that tragic event," Keller said.
On Friday, Roth-Roffy backpedaled, apologizing to Tote's lawyers and saying NTSB had reached no conclusions in its investigation. He said he did not mean to accuse Tote's management of errors.
"In hindsight I think my question could've been better phrased," Roth-Roffy said.
Also during the hearings, a former Tote captain revealed that he had been fired after raising safety concerns about his vessel, the El Morro, a sister to the El Faro. Capt. Jack Hearn said he raised concerns about holes in his ship, and that Tote reluctantly reported them to the Coast Guard — but only after he took a trip without the needed repairs.
Weeks later, Hearn said a company official came onboard and asked him to resign and get help finding a new job, or be fired.
Testimony also revealed that El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson was receiving outdated and wildly inaccurate weather reports the day before the ship sank.
Keller and other company officials say the choice of route and overall voyage planning was Davidson's alone to make, a common refrain from Tote officials throughout both rounds of hearings.
An attorney representing some of the lost crewmembers' families who have sued Tote say the company is continuing to place blame on Davidson rather than admit responsibility.
"The testimony seems carefully crafted and specifically designed to try to avoid responsibility," Houston-based attorney Jason Itkin said in a statement.