Coast Guard hearings begin in Jacksonville into sinking of El Faro

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – The captain of the doomed freighter El Faro emailed his superiors asking about changing the route home the day before his ship sank in a hurricane near the Bahamas, according to testimony Tuesday at an investigative hearing.

The email from Michael Davidson asked whether he could take a slower route home from Puerto Rico through the Old Bahama Channel after trying to outrun Hurricane Joaquin. The El Faro never made it that far. The ship sank Oct. 1 after losing propulsion while sailing from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, killing all 33 aboard.

Investigators are seeking answers about who bears responsibility for the ship sailing into a hurricane.

Philip Morrell, vice president of marine operations for Tote Services Inc., told a U.S. Coast Guard investigative panel that it is not company policy for captains to ask for permission about voyages or routes. Morrell said the email showed common courtesy by the captain, not evidence that management dictated the ship’s route.

Investigators asked Morrell why another Tote official, John Fisker-Anderson, replied “authorized” if Davidson did not need permission to change his route. Davidson had also described Hurricane Joaquin’s behavior as erratic and unpredictable in his email.

“It’s clear in our manuals that he doesn’t need our permission. He advises us, it’s a one way conversation,” Morrell said.

The panel also sought answers about why the El Faro had taken the longer, safer route near the coast of Florida in 2015 during Tropical Storm Erika. The ship could have taken that route on this trip as well, and the panel sought to learn whether the decision to take the faster route was influenced by Tote officials.

Keith Fawcett, a member of the Coast Guard’s investigation board, said that company emails show that there was a lot of discussion between Davidson and Tote officials about Erika, a storm much weaker than Joaquin. Fawcett said the emails mention risk assessments for Erika and other safety precautions.

Fawcett noted the lack of emails about Joaquin.

“Did you send any risk assessments to Capt. Davidson about Hurricane Joaquin?” Fawcett asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” Morrell said.

The 40-year-old freighter, which is longer than 2½ football fields, was also scheduled to have its engine boilers serviced in November, Morrell confirmed. But he said the maintenance was routine. It is still not know what caused the vessel’s loss of power before it sank.

Morrell said the ship performed as well as newer ships, and had similar repair requirements. It was scheduled to be dry docked and sent to Alaska in 2016 where it was to serve as a backup for another cargo ship.

Some family members in attendance sobbed as the panel held a moment of silence for the victims.

“The fact that we are seeing this hearing speaks to the severity and preventability of the El Faro tragedy. We’re just not supposed to see maritime tragedies like this in this day and age,” said Jason Itkin, a lawyer representing the family of Anthony Shawn Thomas, one of the sailors who died.

Morrell said since the El Faro’s sinking, the entire Tote fleet has been outfitted with updated weather reporting systems that provide routing help to captains.

Asked why the company waited so long to give their ships this technology, Morrell said he didn’t know.

The hearings resume Wednesday and are expected to last through next week.

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