Answers Sought on El Faro Sinking in U.S. Coast Guard Hearings
The U.S. Coast Guard has launched public hearings into the El Faro tragedy, which led to the death of all 33 crew members on board last October after the large vessel sank near the Bahamas.
The hearings are intended to help the U.S. Coast Guard gather more information as to why the El Faro sank, who was responsible for the final decisions, and if any missteps led to the tragedy.
Attorney Jason Itkin weighed in on the issue for Action News Jax, ABC News, and News4Jax, saying that a Marine Board Hearing is actually a very rare event.
“The fact that we are seeing this hearing speaks to the severity and preventability of the El Faro tragedy. We’re just not suppose to see maritime tragedies like this in this day and age,” said Itkin, who is representing El Faro clients.
When was the last Coast Guard investigation of this size and seriousness? Six years ago after the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened in the Gulf Coat—another pivotal offshore case that Jason Itkin represented clients in.
Emails, Past Hurricane Protocol & Other Revealing Information
The hearings have already revealed some concerning information about protocol on the El Faro and communications with the captain before the voyage began. According to testimony, the captain, Michael Davidson, had emailed TOTE superiors to ask whether or not he could change the route on the way home to a safer, slower route—however, the ship never even made it through the initial journey.
While TOTE claims that this email was out of common courtesy rather than an indication of TOTE’s control over the captain, questions still loom over the final decisions of the El Faro’s route. John Fisker-Anderson replied to the captain’s email with “authorized,” making investigators further question whether or not it was standard for captains to request permission.
Davidson also described Hurricane Joaquin’s behavior as “erratic and unpredictable” in his email to TOTE. This raised confusion and concern over why the initial route wasn’t changed instead of heading straight into the dangerous waters.
The Example of Tropical Storm Erika
Another concerning fact that was uncovered was the handling of Tropical Storm Erika. Early in 2015, the El Faro had taken the longer, safer route that hugged the coast of Florida during Tropical Storm Erika—a route that the vessel could have also taken to avoid the dangers of Hurricane Joaquin, but failed to do so. The original route is faster, so investigators are questioning whether pressure or influence came from TOTE regarding the El Faro’s route.
Tropical Storm Erika was also much weaker than Hurricane Joaquin, yet there were no emails regarding risk assessments of Joaquin. Investigators noted several email discussions between Davidson and TOTE regarding risk assessments for Erika, as well as other safety precautions for the storm. This brought more questions on why no communication was had on the danger of Hurricane Joaquin and potential alternative routes for the voyage.
Tote officials did comment that since the El Faro’s sinking, they have now outfitted their entire fleet with updated weather reporting systems to provide routing assistance to captains—something that seems to come only as a response to the tragedy that cost the lives of 33 men and women.
Hearings to Bring in All Parties Connected to El Faro
The Coast Guard plans to hear testimony from almost every party connected to the El Faro incident, from experts and former crew members to family members and remaining TOTE Maritime officials.
“While we hope to get some answers during the hearing, we don’t expect we’ll get the resolution for the families we represent; that will be a fight for a later date,” Itkin further commented.
The hearings will likely continue for a total of 10 days. The main goal of the hearings is to help the U.S. Coast Guard gather much needed information on the cause of the sinking, as well as whether or not any misconduct, negligence, or human error played a part in the tragedy.
As the second search for the voyage data recorder is slated to begin in April, this first round of hearings may not be the end for TOTE and other parties involved. You can read the full stories below: