No "Full Investigation" of El Faro Mate Who Slept on Watch

Investigators inspect the El Faro's sister ship, the El Yunque (NTSB)

By MarEx 2017-02-15 00:40:28

The manager of safety and operations for Tote Services, the operator of the lost con/ro El Faro, confirmed Tuesday that he had not recommended a full investigation of a chief mate who had been photographed sleeping on watch. Instead, records showed that he planned to pass the allegations to HR, to have the vessel’s captain remind the crew that cell phones – like the one used to take the photos – were not to be used on watch, and to "end it there."

At the Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the loss of the El Faro, Capt. John Lawrence – who was at that time the vessel’s Designated Person Ashore for reports of safety concerns – testified that an anonymous crewmember had texted him with photos of the chief mate asleep on the bridge, apparently taken at two separate times. While he acknowledged that the allegations represented a safety issue if they were true, Lawrence expressed frustration with the whistleblower's methods.

"[The whistleblower] appeared to be fairly uncooperative with what I was asking him," Lawrence said. "I asked him to call me or email me if he had a concern . . . I finally gave him a few ultimatums – 'tell me who you are if you want me to follow up on this.'" The anonymous crewmember told Lawrence that he had been fired, and Lawrence testified that he was probably a "disgruntled" employee.

Lawrence said that he shared the photos with a TOTE vice president and with the vessel's operations manager. After internal discussions, "we decided that HR would handle it with labor relations . . . [and] they ended up taking disciplinary action." The mate in question was demoted.

However, Board member Keith Fawcett told Lawrence that investigators had found no written record in the mate's HR file regarding any investigation or disciplinary decision. (A lawyer for TOTE noted that the firm did have a letter from the mate in which he admitted the behavior.) In further questioning, Lawrence said that he didn't recall looking at any HR report later on, nor did he know whether anyone had examined the records of the mate's hours of rest or whether the company had required him to undergo a medical examination.

Later, Fawcett read into the record an email that Lawrence had sent to Phil Morrell, TOTE Services' vice president of marine operations. In the memo, Lawrence described his texting exchange with the whistleblower, and he suggested that this crewmember had shown “own irresponsibility of duties and lack of safety by not waking the watch officer, if the case . . . [and] company policy does not allow taking pictures of other crewmembers [sic].”

"We should conduct some followup to show due diligence on our part," Lawrence continued, noting that the whistleblower had threatened to report the incident to the Coast Guard. However, "due to a lack of specific details, I do not feel that a full investigation is needed." He recommended that the captain should remind his deck officers about the company's cell phone policy, talk to them about the sleeping-on-watch incident and "end it there."

This officer’s difficulties were well known to the El Faro's crew: the vessel's voyage data recorder captured a discussion about it the night before the ill-fated vessel went down. "[The chief mate] got caught and nothing happened. Then he got caught again and nothing happened," the third mate said in a conversation on the bridge.