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El Faro hearings end with 33 moments of silence, prayer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The final day of the Coast Guard hearings into the sinking of Jacksonville cargo ship El Faro on Oct. 1 2015 came to an emotional conclusion Friday.

Some of the family members of the crew who attended the hearings had placed black ribbons on chairs for each of 33 lives lost in the deadliest maritime accident of its kind in more than 60 years.

"Each one of those ribbons represents one of our family members. Truly now, 33 families become one family of El Faro," said Pastor Robert Green, whose lost his son, Rivera.

What had been a tedious investigative process gave way to a very personal set of remarks Friday, followed by 33 seconds of silence -- one for each member of the crew lost.

UNCUT: Emotional closing statements

Many family members wiped away tears during the closing statements.

"I am amazed at your strength and your courage," said Tim Nolan, of TOTE Maritime, the ship's owner, to the family members. "We knew that it was truly a brave crew and experienced crew. They thought for the safety of that vessel until the end. They will forever be true heroes."

"He willingly gave up the opportunity to fight for his own survival because he refused to leave the crew member behind," the attorney for Capt. Michael Davidson read from a statement from his widow, Theresa Davison. "Some were surprised that Michael made that choice. I was not."

"The dignity and grace that you've shown is absolutely heartwarming," attorney William Bennett told the families. "I will carry it with me the rest of my life. And for Theresa, who is listening on the phone, it's been an honor to represent your husband here."

Capt. Jason Neubauer, the chairman of the Marine Board, said transcripts from the voyage data recorder retrieved from the ocean floor last year helped frame the hundreds of questions in the final round of hearings.

Neubauer said he listened to all 26 hours of the transcript and it helped him prepare for the hearings, not only in terms of questions, but also in the need to be thorough in the investigation.

"Even on paper, the situation comes across as emotional," Neubauer said. "To watch the actions, the final actions by the crew, I do agree with some of the statements made that the crew tried as hard as they could and there were definitely heroic actions done to try to save other members on that ship itself. For me it's something I will always think about. For maritime safety, for others to read the transcript. And for me, it was important to listen to it because I know it just strengthens my resolve as an investigator."

One of the biggest items discussed over the last two weeks was the condition onboard for crew members, from potential fatigue to possibly not having the equipment needed to secure the cargo as the ship sailed into Hurricane Joaquin.

We also learned that the five Polish workers who were on board might not have had safety training that would have helped in an abandon-ship situation. One worker, who testified from Poland, said he got off El Faro one day before its final voyage said he never tried on a life jacket or survival suit and didn’t even know his assigned lifeboat.

Neubauer wouldn’t put a timeline on when their investigation would be complete and the findings released, saying he didn’t want to rush it. He said it is a top priority to finish and make recommendations for the industry.

Green said that the crew's families prayed together before saying goodbye, something he said will go a long way toward providing the healing they are all looking for.