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Exec: No rational answer for El Faro's sinking

Jacksonville-based cargo ship sank in Caribbean during Hurricane Joaquin

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After nearly two weeks of hearings into the sinking of Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro, an executive with the ship's parent company said Thursday that he still can't pinpoint a reason for the tragedy.

El Faro went down Oct. 1 near the Bahamas en route to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew members aboard died.

Investigators with the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, who have been conducting a second round of investigative hearings into the ship's sinking, questioned TOTE Executive Vice President Petter Keller on Thursday.

An investigator with the NTSB didn’t mince his words when he called the El Faro accident a “colossal failure in the management companies." He then asked Keller where the company failed, and Keller testified that the tragic loss was all about an accident.

“I, for one, with 51 years of experience in transportation, cannot come up with a rational answer,” Keller said. “I do not see anything that has come out of this hearing or anything else I have 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.”

Many family members of the crew in attendance were left shaking their heads after Keller's statement.

The investigative board also questioned a former surveyor on El Faro’s lifeboats, which have been a major topic during both rounds of hearings.

WATCH: El Faro hearings

One of the ship’s lifeboats was found as crews searched for the ship last October, but none of the crew members were inside, leaving many to wonder if the crew was even able to launch the lifeboats during the storm.

The surveyor testified Thursday that he completed work on the lifeboats Sept. 28-29, finishing shortly before the ship left Jacksonville the final time.

Bruce Wagner said that about 7 to 10 percent of ships still use open lifeboats, like El Faro had, but despite them being old-fashioned, they were still easily operable. He said most ships have converted to fully enclosed lifeboats.

He said that lifeboats like that could be successfully launched from a ship with a 20-degree list. The 800-foot ship had a 15-degree list before it sank in Hurricane Joaquin, according to a report from Capt. Michael Davidson. It was also being tossed about by huge waves, making launching a boat on the listing side tougher.

Wagner testified that he did not inspect the system on the ship for lowering and raising the lifeboats when he was on the ship just before it left port. He said that inspection would have been done weeks before that.

Wagner said that there was some talk on the ship days before leaving about the storm, but at that point it didn’t appear to be a serious threat. 

Inspector: El Faro was well-maintained ship

Former U.S. Coast Guard inspector Jerry McMillan told the panel Wednesday that he was on the ship in March of 2015 inspecting several things including cargo gear lashings, containers, life jackets and emergency suits, the deck, hall openings, hatches and watertight doors. 

He said everything seemed well-maintained and in working order.

"Everything looked like it was in good condition. It's an older vessel, but it looked like everything was being maintained," McMillan said. 

McMillan testified that the crew on board was very proficient. He said it was clear they knew what they were doing in terms of their jobs on the ship, as well as putting on the gear during emergency drills. 

"The crew for the firefighting drills were actually very proficient. You can tell they've been doing a lot of training. They knew exactly what they were doing," McMillan said. 

McMillan said one thing they don't practice with crews is getting into the lifeboats, and lowering them into the water, because it is dangerous.

"It's amazing how many accidents happen while you're testing a lifeboat and lowering it into the water with crew on board. You'd think that would be a relatively normal procedure, but the number of accidents that occur are pretty amazing and pretty outstanding," said Rod Sullivan, maritime attorney. 

McMillan said TOTE is one of the better operators he inspects and seems to be a lot better in the safety and management of its vessels. He said there were other companies out of the San Juan sector that were more of a concern to Coast Guard than TOTE.

The Coast Guard panel brought up a report that showed two open issues on the ship that were set to be repaired in February of 2016: Frames on the ship were found detached from the tank top, as well as some fracturing, and one of the bulk heads connecting to the main deck was old and wasted.

McMillan said that those issues seemed minor.

He also said often times, he would get very little notice when it came to attending the Coast Guard's Alternate Compliance Program annual inspection. But he said surveyors told him they couldn't help that because they also got short notice. The American Bureau of Shipping said it's the owners responsibility to give proper notification.

The marine board is on its second week of hearings at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville. The hearings wrap up Friday with two final witnesses scheduled to testify.