Families keep focus of El Faro hearing on 33 lives lost

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The last day of another week of Coast Guard hearings into the sinking of a Jacksonville-based cargo ship during a hurricane in the Caribbean in October 2015 began with a visual reminder of the 33 crew members who died.

Families of many of the crew placed pictures of their lost loved ones on the front row of the hearing room at the Prime Osborn Convention Center to remind the board to keep the focus of the fact-finding inquiry on the victims.

The front row has been reserved for the family of the crew during each round of hearings.

"I want to make sure that no one is forgotten, especially my brother is not forgotten," said Glen Jackson. "They were beloved crew members. Sisters, brothers, sons, daughters. It's not just a statistic."

The majority of Friday's testimony came from Alejandro Berrios, who served as El Faro's third mate. The board questioned him about whether crew members knew that if they reported safety violations, they would be protected by federal whistleblower laws.

There were a lot of questions about crew members getting enough rest or being tired on duty, William Bennett, attorney for El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson, peppered Berrios with safety questions.

Asked if the captain promoted a safety culture on El Faro, Berrios answered, "All the time."

Maritime expert Rob Sullivan thinks a lot of these testimonies will lead to changes in the shipping industry.

“I think they have information that will enable them to come out with new regulations,” Sullivan said. “I think they are going to be able to enact new regulations on oversight of a ship at sea by the shore-side personnel.”

Family members who are attending their third round of hearings into the sinking say this one is different because they have reviewed the transcripts of the voyage data recovered released in December by the National Transportation Safety Board.

For the crew's families, they watch this with more intently than they did the first time this panel convened because they've all had a chance to review the transcripts of the voyage data recorder and learn what happened.

"This one is more intense because of the information we obtained from the VDR," said Rochelle Hamm, who lost her husband aboard El Faro. "Myself, personally, this is the most painful one."

"It's just so unfortunate that this happened … not enough rest, things not being done the right way."

The final round of hearings is expected to resume Monday and continue through next week. The Coast Guard will then issue a report one year to 18 months later of what was learned from the loss of El Faro that could be used to prevent a future tragedy.

About the Author: