On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the loss of the con/ro El Faro continued with testimony from TOTE Inc. Executive Vice President Peter Keller – and with a dramatic exchange between Keller and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy.
Keller, a 50-year veteran of the industry, became president of Sea Star Line, TOTE Inc.'s predecessor, in early 2012. He presided over a major reorganization and remains an executive at the firm; he noted that he is a member of the International Maritime Hall of Fame, inducted in 2006.
When Keller arrived at Sea Star as a consultant, he began a thorough reorganization of the company. "I brought in what I thought was a very customer-centric vice president of sales which was very very important in terms of our overall activities,” he said, emphasizing that "reliability and customer-centricity is extremely important.” Keller also worked to consolidate administrative and financial operations from Sea Star's various groups, and "we did the same early on with the maritime side,” he said.
The panel attempted to clarify details of the El Faro's ownership following the reorganization. The TOTE group of companies is made up of several subsidiaries, including TOTE Inc., TOTE Services Inc., TOTE Resources, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, TOTE Maritime Alaska and TOTE Shipholding, and the panel has in the past expressed difficulty understanding the group's structure. "I'm not 100 percent sure where [the Ponce-class ships] were held financially on the books," Keller said.
The panel then asked how he, as an executive with TOTE Inc., would evaluate the performance of the firm's Puerto Rico route vessels, which are operated by separate entity TOTE Services Inc.
"I look at the reliability of the vessel," he said. "There was no particular reason to think there was any particular issues with the vessels or how they were operating.” Keller emphasized that, in his words, getting “into the weeds” was not his role: “I was not and never have been directly involved with the vessels. I'm not a qualified mariner, I'm a manager. I look to the management people that we hire to do that," he said.
"The proof with anything we do is, as they say, in the pudding," he said. "At the end of the day, if the vessels are operating reliably, we know that there's an awful lot of oversight, both from the companies that we manage as well as our regulators and class [society], and as long as all of those things are working properly, for myself then as a leader of the organization, I'm comfortable."
Keller emphasized that safe operation was paramount for the TOTE group of companies. "We always talk about safety as the number one issue . . .You absolutely have to concentrate on safety or else you won't be in business very long,” he said, even if it means slowing operations. “At the end of the day, if a ship's going to be late, a ship's going to be late, and our customers know that,” he said.
NTSB lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy asked Keller to identify any management shortcomings in the run-up to the loss of the El Faro. "Many would argue and few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faro and its cargo and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard . . . represents a colossal failure in the management of the companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro,” Roth-Roffy asserted. “As you stated, the proof is in the pudding. And, sir, you have no doubt thought long and hard about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro and [her] crew. Could you please share with this board your thoughts about the nature of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro?"
Keller responded that the loss of the El Faro was fundamentally an accident. "I think this tragic loss is all about an accident and I look to this board as well as the NTSB to try to define what those elements may or may not have been. I for one, with 51 years of experience in transportation, cannot come up with a rational answer,” he said. “I do not see anything that has come out of this hearing or anything else that I've ever seen that would talk about a cause. Certainly as management we look for that, we look for what the NTSB and this board may come up with because we think it will be important. At this point in time, I for one cannot identify any failure that would have led to that tragic event."
Roth-Roffy's comments and Keller's response at time marker 1:00:40 (video courtesy USCG MBI)
At the close of the following day’s hearing, the last in the Board’s two-week series, Roth-Roffy amended his initial statements. "I'd like to make a comment regarding one of the questions I posed yesterday to TOTE [Inc.] Executive Vice President Peter Keller. My intent was to give Mr. Keller an opportunity to express his views on the role of TOTE management in the accident and what may have happened relating to the cause of the accident. It was not to accuse the TOTE companies of management system errors. In hindsight I believe my question could have been better phrased because it has been mischaracterized by some as drawing a conclusion regarding the causal factors in this accident. Specifically, the NTSB has not yet made any conclusions regarding the role of TOTE management, the crew of the El Faro, or other entities related to the cause of the accident. Therefore, I would like to apologize to TOTE . . . This accident is still under investigation, and the NTSB is still engaged in collecting factual information. I would like to assure the public, and the families of the El Faro crew members that the NTSB will continue to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation of this accident, and to the best of its ability identify the causal factors that led to the accident."
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.