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Experts: Crew of El Faro trained to survive

Safety equipment on lost cargo ship gives crew chance, experts say

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The El Faro cargo ship that went missing in Hurricane Joaquin last week near the Bahamas reported having mechanical issues and navigation problems Thursday morning.

The ship, owned by TOTE Maritime, was also taking on water and had a 15 degree list, according to TOTE Maritime officials.

A retired Naval officer said a list means the ship is leaning to one side, which can be dangerous in a storm because waves can crash over the side of the ship, making the list even worse.

"When something like this happens -- one of the ships I was on lost power and we were in the Caribbean at the time in 8- to 12-foot seas, which is really nothing compared to what the El Faro was in -- you're really at the mercy of the ocean," said William Kurtz, who is now a Jacksonville lawyer. "At that point, it's a violent episode. You're hanging on trying to make sure people inside the ship don't get hurt from getting knocked around."

Kurtz said the main objective is to stay straight and level through the water. But in addition to the tilt, El Faro was having a propulsion system issue and couldn't navigate correctly, officials said.

Kurtz said typically the crew of 28 Americans and five Polish nationals would be safer on the cargo ship, because it's built to withstand rough conditions, but eventually the crew would have to abandon ship.

"I don't know how quickly that happened here in this case, but at some point the captain has to make the call to abandon ship," Kurtz said. "And the crew needs to be in a position where they can safely get to the lifeboats. They're pretty advanced, they float well, and they can even take on water and still float. They're very good in these types of situations, but you just have to get to them."

The El Faro crew would have had access to two life rafts with food and water on board. The rafts deploy automatically, along with at least two emergency beacons, which send out a signal for searchers.

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The crew also would have survival suits (like ones pictured), which are tight like a wet suit and keep the user warm and buoyant in the ocean. Even if the suit fills with water, the user will still float. The suits, which include a hood, are bright orange and have a whistle attached to help signal rescuers.

"You can survive. If you do what you were trained to do, donned your equipment, you will survive until you are found," said seaman Tim Branch, of the Maritime License Training Company. "No one knows what went on out there. Things change in a matter of seconds, such as the weather conditions, the currents, the tides, I mean. You're looking at 40-foot waves and you're taking on water on the boat."

Capt. Bob Russo runs Maritime License Training Company, which employs simulators to train seafarers in how to handle rough conditions. He said it's likely that despite their training the crew of El Faro had never prepared for surviving in hurricane conditions.

"Because the simulator manufacturer would never envision somebody sailing into a hurricane, so we're not going to train students to do that," Russo said.

Jacksonville attorney Rod Sullivan, a maritime expert, said it's likely the captain and owners thought the ship could beat the storm, which was a tropical storm when El Faro left port at Blount Island on Tuesday.

"I'm sure what was on the mind of the captain and owners were, 'We can make this trip, dodge the hurricane and make the deadline,'" Sullivan said. "But you take a risk when you do that."

Russo showed News4Jax a simulation of 35-foot seas. When El Faro was lost, the seas were nearly 50 feet and it's likely the ship's cargo containers were sliding overboard. In the simulation, the ship eventually capsized.

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Russo said if that happened, the ship's emergency gear should have kicked in automatically, including the transmitters that send a signal to a satellite and can help the Coast Guard fly almost directly to the wrecked ship.

Searchers found one lifeboat (pictured), heavily damaged, with no one on board and unidentifiable human remains in a survival suit.

Despite the conditions and the debris that's been found, Russo said there is reason for optimism.

"I would offer hope still, even if the boat sank. I would say the water temperature is not so cold that you would suffer hypothermia right away, so that's good," Russo said. "And they had time to wear survival suits, which is excellent."

Was El Faro worthy to sail?

El Faro was built several decades ago, but then totally refurbished in 2006.

According to TOTE Maritime, earlier this year El Faro passed two safety inspections.
The last U.S. Coast Guard annual inspection was in March and El Faro was given the thumbs up.

"The Coast Guard does not inspect for structural integrity," Sullivan said. "When they inspect it's looking for things like lifesaving equipment (and) the general upkeep of the ship."

The American Bureau of Shipping inspects the hull and machinery of the ship. Its last inspection of the El Faro was in February.

"(They check for) the structural integrity of the ship, actually gauging the steel to withstand the forces, looking at what needs to be doubled up -- that's really the American Bureau of Shipping's responsibility," Sullivan said.

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Sullivan said the ABS website showed El Faro's cargo carrying capacity had been reduced because of corrosion.

"There were some concerns for the fact that corrosion had worn away some of the steel, as you would expect with a 40-year-old ship," Sullivan said. "The real question is, 'Should you send a ship this old in the face of a hurricane?'"

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Monday that it's launching an investigation Tuesday into the loss of El Faro.

Sullivan said he expects a lot of litigation once the NTSB findings come out.

"I think everybody is afraid of litigation when something like this happens, and I don't think they want to open all the records up to the public," Sullivan said.

TOTE conducts a formal annual onboard safety audit -- the last was March 3.

TOTE port engineers also conduct weekly shipboard meetings with the captain and chief engineer to review maintenance and required support.

In addition, shore side contractors provide regularly scheduled vessel support when the ship is in Jacksonville.

Tote issued a statement saying in part, "The efforts and assistance from the Coast Guard has been extraordinary and we continue to be grateful for their dedication and efforts finding surviving crew members." 


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