El Faro Hearings Open with Testimony from TOTE

The El Faro's trackline (image courtesy USCG)

By MarEx 2016-02-16 21:08:03

The U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigations for the El Faro's sinking opened its two-week series of public hearings Tuesday in Jacksonville, Florida, beginning with questions for Mr. Phillip Morrell, TOTE Services' vice president of marine operations.

The Marine Board of Investigations is the USCG's highest level of investigation, and is reserved for severe or nationally prominent maritime incidents. The Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 was the last time such a panel was convened.

The panel opened its Tuesday session with a moment of silence for the 33 crewmembers lost in the sinking of the El Faro. The board's members, notably Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer and USCG investigator Keith Fawcett, proceeded to question Mr. Morrell regarding the number and content of company emails related to events prior to the vessel's loss. Their questions related to the El Faro operator's policies towards maintenance, on-time arrivals, weather routing and heavy weather events.

“TOTE has always put maintenance as a top priority,” Mr. Morrell said, adding that the firm also put safety over speed. “If we’re late arriving in San Juan, we’re late.”

The vessel had followed a much longer weather diversion route along the coast of Cuba during Tropical Storm Erika in August, and in questioning the panel sought additional information regarding the firm’s interactions with captains over weather routing decisions. 

Mr. Morrell was uncertain whether TOTE had shoreside weather monitoring staff at its Jacksonville office, nor was he familiar with heavy weather avoidance plans for the two ships referred to in the firm's internal emails, but added that any such plans would have been consistent with the firm's safety management system.

Further, weather routing was the captain's responsibility, Mr. Morrell said. "That’s all managed on board by the captain . . . he has total responsibility for that work."

In response to further questioning, Mr. Morrell said that he was involved in a finance and budget meeting at the time that Captain Davidson sent an email regarding a weather routing change, and said he had not been tracking news of the storm at that time. He reiterated that Captain Davidson was fully authorized to make routing decisions on his own, and said that the captain was acting in response to weather information received on board with equipment as fitted.

The board also discussed an internal email from Melissa Clark, the firm's crewing manager, expressing “dwindling confidence” in Captain Davidson. Mr. Morrell said that he had not seen the email before. While the captain had generally received positive evaluations over the course of his career, the Board found, the firm was reportedly looking at other candidates for master aboard its new vessels, citing an unspecified personnel action in which the captain had been involved. Mr. Morrell said that he had never had any issues with Captain Davidson himself.

In addition to the panel’s questions, the Coast Guard said that it found the crew had proper credentials and the ship carried the required safety, lifesaving and communications equipment.

Captain Neubauer ended the day's events with notice that while the panel’s questions for Mr. Morrell were finished for the time being, his testimony remained open and he could be recalled to attend further hearings. 

In late January, the families of 10 crew members who died when the El Faro went down agreed to accept a settlement of $500,000 each. The families included in the settlement were those of Captain Michael Davidson, Keith Griffin, Piotr Krause, Roan Lightfoot, Marcin Nita, Jan Podgorski, Richard Pusatere, Howard P. Schoenly, Andrej Truszkowski and Rafal Zdobych

"Since the loss of the El Faro, we have focused every effort on supporting the families of those on board. An important part of this support has entailed reaching fair and swift legal settlements for those who may choose them," TOTE Maritime officials said in a statement. "We can confirm that we have settled financially with 10 families through a respectful and equitable mediation process. We stress that our support of all the families will continue."