Condition of El Faro safety equipment questioned

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The horror the crew of the El faro went through as the Jacksonville-based cargo ship sank is something families members say they'll never forget. Details of the ship's final hours and minutes detailed in the 510-page transcript of audio from the ship's bridge released by the National Transportation Safety Board released Tuesday were painful for the crew's loved ones, and brought up issues that they and lawyers representing them want addressed.

In photos of one of the El Faro lifeboats the Coast Guard recovered in the Caribbean as they searched for survivors, damage is visible, but marine experts say the mechanical device used to lower the boats shows someone wedged wood into it. And the anchor and line found inside the boat was found knotted together with painter overalls.

"This is a boat hook handle which was jammed into that in an effort to try to release it," attorney Bob Spoher said. "We don't know exactly what was going on. We have a lot of questions.

The NTSB transcripts show that there were only about 10 minutes between when El Faro's captain gave the order to abandon ship until the bow of the ship began to go under water. The crew would have needed to climb into survival vests in the middle of a hurricane with the ship listing 15 degrees and lower lifeboats into the water.

Attorneys that was likely not enough time for the 33 crew members to get off, especially if there were problems with lifesaving equipment.

"It's incomprehensible to me that they don't have life jackets -- PFD's -- on the bridge of the ship. And the captain actually had to send people below to get life vests," maritime attorney Rod Sullivan said.

There is also concern about the type of life jackets that were found with the lifeboat.

 "Our expert found in the lifeboat not would you expect, which would be commercial life jackets with whistles and lights on them" Spoher said. "They found recreational-like ski vests, like what you might have on a fishing boat."

Bob Russo, who teaches maritime safety, looked at the photo of the jammed lowering device found with the lifeboat.

"It should not have been acceptable. That's not the way it's supposed to be stowed," Russo said.

During a previous round of NTSB hearing, regulators said El Faro's lifeboats were inspected the day before the ship sailed for Puerto Rico.

Sullivan said he didn't believe the lifeboats were a viable option for survival, anyway.

"If I were trying to escape, quite frankly the lifeboats would not be my first choice because it was so difficult to get into them and you would get so pummeled by the wave. I would get into a survival suit," Sullivan said.

These concerns may be addressed in February when the NTSB holds another round of hearings into the sinking. Families press for more information about the condition of the El Faro before it set sail.

 

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