U.S. Coast Guard investigators on Tuesday opened public hearings aimed at solving one of deadliest American maritime mysteries in three decades: the sinking of the El Faro.
Thirty-three El Faro crew members died after the 40-year-old container ship ran into Hurricane Joaquin’s 130 mph winds and sank off the Bahamas last October 1.
Facing the first day of hearings in Jacksonville, Florida, was Phil Morrell, a vice president of TOTE Maritime, the company that operated El Faro.
Investigators grilled Morrell all day about many aspects of the ship and its crew, including the captain, Michael Davidson, the 53-year-old veteran mariner who lost his life in the disaster.
The Coast Guard said the hearing board will evaluate evidence to determine what caused the accident and to determine if there were any acts of misconduct, negligence or violation of the law. Any evidence from the investigation that may point to criminal actions could be turned over to a federal prosecutor and possibly result in criminal charges.
A marine board investigation is the Coast Guard’s highest level probe. It’s the first such investigation held since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 crew members in 2010.
Because so many souls were lost, El Faro has drawn comparisons to another ship disaster: the sinking of the SS Marine Electric in 1983, which killed 31. That ship was 39 years old.
“This is one of the worst we have had in over 30 years,” Coast Guard board chairman Capt. Jason Neubauer told the Florida Times Union last month.
The Coast Guard said this initial phase of its El Faro investigation will focus on “pre-accident historical events relating to the loss,” “regulatory compliance,” “crewmember duties and qualifications” and “past operations of the vessel.”
At a later Coast Guard hearing, investigators said they plan to delve into other topics, including details about the voyage, cargo loading, weather conditions and navigation.
Investigators Tuesday quizzed TOTE Vice President Morrell about the ship’s maintenance, its performance and who has authority to approve course changes. “The captain has oversight, overall, of the vessel,” Morrell told the panel.
El Faro was carrying more than $2 million worth of grocery products, cars and retail products, a TOTE spokesman told CNN last fall.
El Faro left Jacksonville on September 29, when Joaquin was still just a tropical storm, although it was threatening to grow into a hurricane.
The next day while at sea, Joaquin had become a hurricane. Davidson emailed TOTE to let the company know he intended to take a route 65 miles south of Joaquin’s predicted path, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Less than two days out of Jacksonville, Davidson called TOTE to report that the hull had been breached, the ship was taking on water, and it had lost propulsion.
About 20 minutes later, El Faro emitted its final alert signal. It was less than 20 miles from the eye of the hurricane.
The ship was never heard from again.
On October 4, searchers found a damaged lifeboat, two damaged liferafts, and a deceased crewmember wearing an immersion suit. The following day a debris field and oil slick were found, and the Coast Guard determined that the El Faro was lost and declared the event a major marine casualty. The Coast Guard suspended operations on October 7.
On October 31, the NTSB announced that the Navy — using underwater robots — had zeroed in on El Faro’s wreckage sitting 15,000 feet upright on the bottom of the Atlantic, its stern buried in 30 feet of sediment.
Video from the search robot showed that the huge ship’s bridge — where officers command the vessel — had been torn clean off.
So far, a key piece — El Faro’s voyage data recorder — has not been recovered.
That so-called “black box” may help answer many lingering questions about what happened to the ship during the final hours before it sank.
The NTSB said last week it planned to launch a new mission in April to try to find the recorder.
Finding the voyage data recorder may help investigators learn more about how such a large structure as El Faro’s bridge could have been sheared away.