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NTSB: El Faro captain twice ignored suggestions to change course

NTSB releases audio transcript from recovered vessel data recorder

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The captain of a Jacksonville-based cargo ship ignored suggestions from his second and third mates to change course in the hours before the El Faro sank in the Caribbean, according to information released Tuesday morning by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The 737-foot ship sank about 7:40 a.m. Oct. 1, 2015, fewer than 90 minutes after losing power just east of the Bahamas as Hurricane Joaquin approached. Data and a transcript of audio from the bridge shed some light on what led to the decision to abandon ship, but not if anyone was able to get off.

All 33 crew members died.

Overnight, Capt. Michael Davidson decided to stay on course for Puerto Rico, saying that the ship was south of the hurricane and the winds would not be a problem. There is information that Davidson may have based his decision on weather information that was up to six hours older than the weather data the crew members on the bridge were seeing.

The NTSB released many of the factual details of the sinking of the ship, including a transcript of the last 26 hours of audio recorded on the bridge. Federal investigators opened Tuesday's presentation by saying the information contains no analysis, finding of cause or recommendations, which will come later.

The information released Tuesday included weather conditions, engineering, survival factors and data from the El Faro’s voyage data recorder, which was recovered Aug. 8 from the ocean floor 15,000 feet below the surface.

The NTSB went through the audio on the data recorder, producing a 510-page transcript. The conversations included phone conversations with Davidson about deteriorating conditions at 11:05 p.m. and 2:05 a.m. By one estimate, the ship would have been 22 miles from the center of the Category 3 hurricane by 4 a.m.

"This ship can't handle this hurricane," the second mate can be heard saying at 3 a.m. 

Records show that Davidson arrived on the bridge at 4:10 a.m. and remarked that it was like "a typical winter day in Alaska."

In a phone call to the ship's owners at 6:54 a.m., Davidson said, “There’s no need to ring the general alarm yet. We’re not abandoning ship." Seven minutes later, he called a marine emergency, but said the crew was safe and trying to save the ship.

Davidson remained on the bridge as conditions and the status of the ship deteriorated. The U.S. Coast Guard received a distress signal at 7:15 a.m. 

"I would say they're a little bit late at this point. I mean, back at 6 o'clock they're beginning to realize that they can't stop the flow of water into the hull of the ship. So they probably needed to send out their position earlier than that," said maritime attorney Rod Sullivan.

At 7:29 a.m., Davidson did order the ship abandoned and life rafts were deployed two minutes later. 

"Everybody get off; get off the ship. Stay together," Davidson ordered over a UHF radio. He then is heard saying, "Bow is down; bow is down."

Davidson tells everyone on the bridge to get to safety, and mostly yelling can be heard in the final minute before the audio recording ended at 7:39 a.m. The last distinguishable exchange is from one crew member is heard saying, "I'm gone; I'm a goner," and Davidson replying, "I'm not leaving you. Let's go."

Investigators believe the bridge went under water at 7:40 a.m. It was later found on the ocean floor, severed from the rest of the ship.

READ: Audio transcript from El Faro's final hours
UNCUT BRIEFING: NTSB releases data, transcript

"I think what the evidence is going to show is that people did get off of the ship. They got into the water, they lowered themselves down on ropes to the waterline. But what happened after that is, you’re in hurricane-force seas and if you're not in a survival suit, if you're not in a life boat, if you're not in a life raft, your chances of survival are very small," Sullivan said.

Sullivan, who represents the family of one El Faro's crew members, said apparently the ship had been taking on water since 3 a.m., but no one knew it. 

"Well, the reason things seem to be fine is because there are tons and tons and tons of water in the hold of the ship that you don't yet know about and that's slowing down your progress, making your ship, making it appear more stable until that water shifts and then when that water shifts everything just goes crazy," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said it's the captain's credit that he and an “able seaman” stayed on the bridge until the very last moment. But Sullivan also expressed criticism, saying the captain seemed overconfident, and that proper planning would have kept the ship from coming so close to the hurricane.

Victims' families lash out

After the release, family members of the El Faro crew meet privately with NTSB officials to ask questions about the findings. Those who couldn't make the trip could take part in a webinar at the same time so they could ask questions remotely.

Those meetings didn't quell their frustration.

"I would have thrown the captain overboard board and tried to save myself and the ship," Patricia Quammie said. "Being the captain, I guess he decided that he was on the best course. I'm pretty sure when working for the captain, you are loyal to him. So they just decided to go whatever way he went."

Looking back, family members said it's easy to see how things could have been done differently.

"It shouldn't take six or seven calls to make (the decision to change course)," said Frank Hamm's widow, Rochelle. "Had he done it sooner, we wouldn't be here."

Family members who made the trip to Washington said some of their questions were answered Tuesday, and they'll now wait for the full investigation to be completed.

"Us, as families, we are seeing a whole different picture of the maritime industry," Hamm said.

Pastor Robert Green, whose son LaShawn Rivera was among those lost on the El Faro, couldn't make the trip to Washington. He and others wish it hadn't come during the holidays.

 “I think the timing is really tough. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a time that we often miss our loved ones the very most, even in the most usual situations,” Green said.

Painful to hear of last minutes of loved one's life

Glen Jackson and his sister, Jill, learned from Tuesday's briefing that their brother, Jack Jackson, might have been the last person on the bridge with Davidson. They are still going through all the documents the NTSB just released and said they may not heal as long as there are questions as to who was responsible for the  sinking of the ship.

"My long-term goal is to hope that we can see that other maritime families never experience this kind of unexpected loss," said Jill Jackson d'Entremont.

While people are focused on the captain's decision not to change course, the Jackson family's attorney, attorney, Bob Spoher, pointed out other problems with the El Faro. A recovered lifeboat showed the ropes used to lower them appear to have never worked and were jammed.  He also mentioned that out-of-date weather information contributed to the tragedy.

While 25 of the families of the El Faro victims have accepted a $500,000 settlement with Tote Maritime, the Johnsons are among a few still pursuing a wrongful death claim. They want to use the legal process in addition to the official investigation to get to the bottom of what happened, to find out who is accountable and legally responsible. 

"To try and make sure steps are taken so this doesn't happen to any other family," Spoher said.

The Jacksons' lawsuit won't be heard until May 2018.