NTSB: Capt. of sunken ship intended to sail 65 mi from storm

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Federal investigators said Tuesday that the captain of the doomed cargo ship that sank after being battered by a hurricane intended to pass 65 miles from the center of the storm, a decision maritime experts say was risky.

The 790-foot El Faro left after the National Hurricane Center sent out an advisory on Tuesday, Sept. 29 that then-Tropical Storm Joaquin was predicted to become a hurricane.

The next day, the captain, Michael Davidson, sent his plan to the company, saying he thought he’d be able to outrun it, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a news release.

“The captain emailed a company safety official that he intended to take a route south of the predicted path of the hurricane and would pass about 65 miles from its center,” the agency wrote.

The 41-year-old freighter eventually sank after Davidson radioed in that they had lost engine power and were tipping and taking on water. The NTSB said the U.S. Coast Guard received three different electronic distress alerts from the ship. All 33 crew members aboard were lost. A Navy team is currently searching for the wreckage.

Some maritime experts said intending to go 65 miles from the center of a storm is risky, and that many others choose to stay much farther away from a dangerous storm, which is what the Category 4 hurricane Joaquin became.

“The rule of thumb for me is 300 miles,” said F. John Nicoll, a retired captain who spent years piloting cargo ships like the El Faro on the run to Puerto Rico. “My supervisor always used to say that 300 is the rule. It’s weather. And the only thing you can predict about it is that it’s unpredictable.”

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said there is no minimum distance that ships are told to stay away from a hurricane; it is not advisable to travel anywhere near them, he said.

“Any time there’s a hurricane, the rule of thumb for the Coast Guard is to avoid it,” Doss said.

Michael Hanson, a spokesman for Tote Maritime, the company that owned and operated the El Faro, said Tuesday that the company would not speculate on events surrounding the sinking, and directed questions to the NTSB.

But Phil Greene, president and CEO of Tote Services Inc., has said that Davidson was a capable captain with lots of experience, and expressed confidence in his decision making.

“The captain established a plan. He had been observing this weather system for many days prior to this voyage occurring,” Greene said. “On Wednesday he sent a message back to the home office providing his status on the developing tropical storm and highlighted his plan and said he had very good weather and what his intentions were and that his crew was fully prepared.”

At least one crew member who perished with the ship had expressed concern about the approaching storm, sending a message to her mother while at sea.

“Not sure if you’ve been following the weather at all, but there is a hurricane out here and we are heading straight into it,” wrote Danielle Randolph, according to court documents.

The families of two other crew members have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Tote, and one named the captain as well. They argue the company and captain took undue risks in sailing despite hurricane warnings.

The NTSB’s investigation also found that the El Faro had been inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard and was qualified on March 6, 2015.

A few months later, the vessel’s boilers, used to power the ship, were inspected and it was recommended that they be serviced when they returned to dry dock on Nov. 6, a routine procedure.

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