El Faro Lifeboat Davits Were Deteriorated

The El Faro's sister ship El Morro (file image courtesy Will Van Dorp)

By MarEx 2016-02-26 21:41:29

On Friday, the Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of the El Faro finished its first round of hearings with testimony from TOTE Services port engineer Tim Neeson.

Mr. Neeson, who is responsible for safety management system compliance for the firm’s vessels home ported in Jacksonville, answered the panel's questions regarding the El Faro's material condition.

Contrary to previous testimony, he told the panel that the Polish riding gang – aboard to perform welding and modification work on the vessel to prepare her for Alaskan service – had been working in her engine room on at least one occasion, for purposes of installing a butterworth heater (steam-fed heating unit). Previous respondents had indicated that the Polish crew had not performed work in that space. 

He addressed questions about the integrity of her propulsion system, saying that service staff with Walashek Industrial, the inspecting contractor, had given him a “six month window” in which it would be reasonable to continue operating them before making repairs. He said that as they were experts in their trade, he deferred to their judgement. The work was tentatively scheduled for completion in the Bahamas and in Tacoma.

He added that “we don't sail with boilers unless they're ready to go.” The captain “has a ship that runs ahead at 100 percent at all times, or it doesn't sail;” one of his ships “leave[s] when it's ready to leave,” with no pressure from the company to arrive on time.

A panelist asked Mr. Neeson if he was familiar with reported problems on sister ship El Yunque regarding lifeboat davits. In June of 2015, the El Yunque had sailed on a “ten day cargo ship safety equipment temporary certificate” from ABS, with a supplementary life raft on board, due to “steel too thin on davit arms” (from corrosion over time). 

The El Faro had also had a supplementary life raft added before her final voyage, and Mr. Neeson was asked if she had similar problems. He responded that he had personally witnessed deterioration of her davits.

ABS-certified technicians had inspected the davits and passed them at an annual inspection in August, without providing feedback as to their condition, he said. The technicians had made a return trip in September to work on davit clutches. ABS was not present at either inspection.

Mr. Neeson said that the extra life raft added on the El Faro was for purposes of “preventive maintenance” on a davit. He had no concerns about the serviceability of her life boat or other SOLAS equipment on the date of her sailing.

The panel enquired into reports of cracking on or near d-rings and buttons used for securing cargo on the vessel, and Mr. Neeson said that he was not aware of any damage that could lead to ingress of water. As to damage to the d-rings themselves, this was a constant maintenance issues, as vehicles would run over the steel straps holding the d-rings to the deck, cracking them and requiring their replacement.

The Board also continued its inquiry into the company's evaluation of El Faro Captain Michael Davidson and his performance; Mr. Neeson quoted an email he had previously sent, complimenting the captain's ability to handle difficult issues with some of the unlicensed crew, and said that other shoreside staffs' characterization of his management style – a “stateroom captain” - did not indicate that he was anything other than an excellent officer. The captain was aware that he had not been selected for one of the new class of LNG-fueled TOTE vessels at the time of the El Faro's last voyage, Mr. Neeson said.

Mr. Neeson said that he had dinner with Captain Davidson aboard the El Faro before her final departure. They discussed the tropical storm brewing off the coast; neither man was concerned by the weather at the time, he said, nor did they think it might develop into a hurricane.