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Captain, hurricane expert testify at El Faro hearings

Jacksonville-based cargo ship sank in Caribbean during Hurricane Joaquin

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A former captain of El Faro and an expert from the National Hurricane Center testified Tuesday before a U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation during the second round of public hearings on the sinking of the Jacksonville-based cargo ship.

The ship sank Oct. 1, 2015, near the Bahamas en route to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew members aboard died.

The 10-day hearing opened Monday with testimony from three witnesses.

Investigators expect to hear from dozens more witnesses over the next two weeks, including a former chief mate and a senior National Weather Service meteorologist.

On Tuesday, former El Faro captain Jack Hearn said he sailed on the ship on multiple occasions, both when the ship was named Northern Lights and sailed in the Alaskan Trade and when it was renamed El Faro after moving to the San Juan run.

Hearn was forthcoming about the ship in his testimony, saying that the ship became tougher to control when it was switched to container cargo, making it rock more from side to side during a trip.

He also said that when the ship was underway, there was no process for logging when hatches were opened or closed. He said that if those were open during heavy weather, it could allow for water to get into the ship.

During the first hearing, investigators were told that it took hours for TOTE executives to get back to Capt. Michael Davidson when he asked for permission to change course. Hearn said that was routine in his experience.

Family members of the perished crew said that process should change.

“I think what it does is tell us that it is not a 24-hour oversight. Certainly, when a plane takes off at an airport, no one is out of sight or out of communication, and that’s a margin of safety,” said Pastor Robert Green, whose son died on El Faro. “I think maybe the men and women on the seas deserve that same safety.”

An expert from the National Hurricane Center also testified in front of the panel Tuesday afternoon, discussing the difficulty of predicting how a storm might move from start to finish.

When El Faro left Jacksonville, what became Hurricane Joaquin was predicted to move away from the United States and the path the ship would take to Puerto Rico. As the ship moved further south, the storm stalled and then moved directly into El Faro’s path.

"Having that southward motion is unusual," hurricane expert James Franklin said. "Having a storm strengthen as it moves south is even more unusual. Southward moving storms rarely strengthen as we saw with Joaquin."

Hearn said that it was always his philosophy to try to avoid as much of the center of a hurricane as he could. He said he had to do that during Hurricane Sandy.

“It’s a weather prediction, and it could be wrong. It’s certainly going to change,” Hearn said. “Once you are in it, you are in it. And you are in it until that storm moves away from you. You can’t, you probably can’t run from the storm because you are fighting the seas and trying to protect the ship.”

He said that being in a storm for 24 hours, cargo would almost certainly have been breaking loose on the ship. Hearn also said there were continuing problems on the ship, including with a condenser on board.

“I hope the NTSB focuses in on that,” maritime expert Rod Sullivan. “He said something we have never heard before -- that they had continuing condenser problems on the ship. The condenser is one of the few components of the ship that if it fails will cause the entire plant to shut down, so I’m hoping to hear more about the condenser problems.”

Witness: El Faro's captain said he'd 'shoot under' hurricane

Capt. Eric Bryson, a harbor pilot who sailed the El Faro out of JaxPort that night as it began its final voyage, said the ship departed 25 minutes behind schedule because of extra cargo being loaded, but he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

Bryson recalled a conversation he had with El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson on the bridge that night. Asked about a tropical storm headed into the Caribbean as the ship sailed, Bryson said Davidson replied, "We're just going to go out and shoot under it."

Maritime attorney Rod Sullivan was surprised the conversation ended there.

"I would expect that any time you are sailing out in the Caribbean and there's a hurricane out there, that there would be more idle chatter about, "What do you expect?'" Sullivan said. "And the simple idea of, 'We are going to sail underneath it,' is a insignificant conversation about a significant topic." 

Monday afternoon, Capt. Eric Axelsson, who used to work as the master of the El Faro, was asked a wide range of questions about safety procedures to better understand what happened and why certain decisions were made.

Axelsson said there was a good safety culture aboard the ship and called it a "Cadillac" that was very stable and handled well.

He said there were multiple anemometers aboard the ship to measure wind speed. They were calibrated and monitored, but one was more accurate than the others.

Board members asked Axelsson what route he would have plotted to Puerto Rico given the weather forecast and repeatedly asked him whether there was any pressure from TOTE Maritime, the ship's owner, to arrive on time.

"I never heard anything coming back to me regarding keeping a tight schedule," Axelsson said. "The way it was presented to me once we set sail, 'Let us know your ETA and what time you'll be there.' If I was going to be an hour late, there was no backlash, I wasn't questioned. I didn't see the ETA as being pushed or forced."

AnNWS expert expected to testify on whether the ship should have left port bound with a tropical storm moving into the Caribbean, and if so, when the captain should have turned around.

Other topics of inquiry will also include functionality of the ship's weather equipment, cargo storage, as well as repairs and inspections of the lifeboat-lowering equipment.

A previous two weeks of hearings into the incident wrapped up in February. Since then, a deep-sea research vessel found El Faro's data recorder but was not able to retrieve it.

Sullivan said the next question is for the Navy. Should the money be spent to send another vessel to go try to retrieve the data recorder, and if it were to be brought up, would it be useful in finding out what happened since it's been underwater for so long?

These hearings are scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday through May 27 at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.