Families of El Faro crew hopeful inqury finds answers

Jacksonville-based cargo ship sank in Caribbean Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Testimony in a second round of hearings into the sinking of El Faro ended Friday after two weeks, during which a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said "few would dispute" that the loss of the El Faro represented a management failure by Tote Services, Inc.

The 790-foot El Faro sank after losing propulsion and getting caught in Hurricane Joaquin while heading from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico on October 1. All 33 aboard died.

Many of the families of crew members who sat through hours technical testimony before a U.S. Coast Coast Guard Marine Safety Board over the past two weeks are hoping it helps the U.S. Coast Guard determine how the tragedy happened.

For the final day, the sister of Howard Schoenly, one of El Faro's crew members, brought memorials that she has been making for all of the families. 

She made 36 of them, one for each of the 33 crew, one for the ship, and one for each of the unions. She said it’s another way to honor the crew members together.

Many family members wore the shirts given out during the last round of hearings and sat a poster with each crew member’s picture on it in the front row.

Some family members have said they have learned a lot during the hearings about what the conditions may have been like on El Faro on a regular basis, not just in their final hours.

Once the investigation is complete, family members hope that industrywide changes will be made to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. 

Exec of El Faro ownership grilled by safety board

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.