Tote CEO tells safety board captains have ultimate say

Coast Guard marine safety board holds 2nd of 10 days of hearings

By Chris Parenteau - Reporter, Scott Johnson - Reporter

The president and CEO of Tote Services said at a U.S. Coast Guard investigative hearing Wednesday that the company is deeply grieved by the loss of El Faro and its 33 crew members.

Families of those 33 crew members -- lost at sea when El Faro sank Oct. 1 while sailing from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico -- filled the Prime Osborn Convention Center again Wednesday, listening in on the Coast Guard's investigation into the ship's ill-fated final voyage.

El Faro sank after losing propulsion near Hurricane Joaquin.

Investigators seeking answers about who bears responsibility for the ship sailing into a hurricane heard a second day of testimony Wednesday.

The primary witnesses were Philip Greene, a retired rear admiral and president of Tote Services, and Lee Peterson, director of marine services of Tote Maritime, the owner of El Faro.

Greene testified to the marine safety board that safety is his company's top priority. He said that Tote Services has policies and guidelines for masters to use in instances like hurricanes but that the captains of the ships have the ultimate say in what the ship does.

WATCH LIVE: Coast Guard marine board hearing
DOCUMENT: Full schedule of hearing

He said that company officials place their trust in the sailors to make decisions, including whether the ship can handle adverse weather.

"I believe that we have the most competent mariners in the world in the United States merchant marine. They're credentialed by our government. They're credentialed by a tedious, arduous process to earn that license as an unlimited tonnage master," Greene said. "We vest in them the responsibility, the accountability and the trust. They are the experts in the safe operation of that vessel, which includes the voyage planning elements that would be associated with evaluating environmental conditions."

He said he was out of town on business when El Faro set sail and later sank.

Greene also testified about the corporate structure of his company but sidestepped many questions, saying those issues never would have made it to his level.

He said El Faro was owned by Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, which is a third-party client of Tote Services. He said his company provides a service; it does not own assets.

“It seems to me like Adm. Greene is trying to distance himself and his company from Tote Puerto Rico, while at the same time saying that they share the same office, they have an open-office policy, they see each other on a daily basis, but they’re our client,” maritime attorney Rod Sullivan said. “I think they are trying to distance Tote Services from Tote Maritime and put it all off on the captain.”

Sullivan, who attended the hearings Wednesday, said he doesn’t fault Greene for testifying how he did, but the evidence doesn't back Greene's testimony.

Enoch Webster, a former crew member on El Faro, said he was frustrated to hear so much responsibility being placed on the captain.

“In one instance, I think I heard him say there were problems with the captain’s judgment. This was last night on the news, but when they asked him a little before recess today, they said in certain circumstances the captain has the wherewithal to make those decisions because the captain is the on-scene commander,” Webster said. “I didn’t like what I heard.”

Peterson testified that there were weekly lifeboat drills conducted on El Faro. But he said that if a bad drill took place, there was no protocol to report it to the company. He also said that he had not seen the company’s risk assessment for hurricane avoidance.  

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was on hand for the hearings Wednesday. She said that she was there because she is a member of the Transportation Committee and wants to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.

“You’ve got a great team, and I just want to get the outcome of that team,” Brown said. “The Coast Guard and the board, they do an excellent job.  And closure, I was there the entire time, and I think it’s very important that we get to the bottom of it.”

Since El Faro sank, Tote has instituted new weather-tracking technology on its ships. Many on the panel asked Wednesday why that type of technology wasn't in place before.

Captain asked permission to change course

The captain of the doomed El Faro emailed his superiors asking about changing the route home the day before his ship sank in a hurricane near the Bahamas, according to testimony Tuesday.

The email from Michael Davidson asked whether he could take a slower route home from Puerto Rico through the Old Bahama Channel after trying to outrun Hurricane Joaquin. The El Faro never made it that far. The ship sank Oct. 1 after losing propulsion while sailing from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, killing all 33 aboard.

Investigators seeking answers about who bears responsibility for the ship sailing into a hurricane hear a second day of testimony Wednesday. The primary witness will be Lee Paterson, director of marine services of Tote Maritime, the owner of the El Faro.

On Tuesday, Philip Morrell, vice president of marine operations for Tote, told the marine safety board that it is not company policy for captains to ask for permission about voyages or routes. Morrell said the email showed common courtesy by the captain, not evidence that management dictated the ship's route.

Investigators asked Morrell why another Tote official, John Fisker-Anderson, replied "authorized" if Davidson did not need permission to change his route. Davidson had also described Hurricane Joaquin's behavior as erratic and unpredictable in his email.

"It's clear in our manuals that he doesn't need our permission. He advises us, it's a one way conversation," Morrell said.

The panel also sought answers about why the El Faro had taken the longer, safer route near the coast of Florida in 2015 during Tropical Storm Erika. The ship could have taken that route on this trip as well, and the panel sought to learn whether the decision to take the faster route was influenced by Tote officials.

Keith Fawcett, a member of the Coast Guard's investigation board, said that company emails show that there was a lot of discussion between Davidson and Tote officials about Erika, a storm much weaker than Joaquin. Fawcett said the emails mention risk assessments for Erika and other safety precautions.

Fawcett noted the lack of emails about Joaquin.

"Did you send any risk assessments to Capt. Davidson about Hurricane Joaquin?" Fawcett asked.

"Not to my knowledge," Morrell said.

The 40-year-old freighter, which is longer than 2½ football fields, was also scheduled to have its engine boilers serviced in November, Morrell confirmed. But he said the maintenance was routine. It is still not know what caused the vessel's loss of power before it sank.

Morrell said the ship performed as well as newer ships, and had similar repair requirements. It was scheduled to be dry docked for boiler maintenance, then sent to Alaska in 2016 where it was to serve as a backup for another cargo ship.

"I expected to hear questions about what were they going to do in Freeport in the shipyard, what were the boiler repairs that needed to be done," said maritime lawyer Rod Sullivan, who sat in on Tuesday's hearing. "They just sort of left it hanging."

Some family members in attendance sobbed  a the the inquiry opened with held a moment of silence for the victims.

"The fact that we are seeing this hearing speaks to the severity and preventability of the El Faro tragedy. We're just not supposed to see maritime tragedies like this in this day and age," said Jason Itkin, a lawyer representing the family of Anthony Shawn Thomas, one of the sailors who died.

Morrell said since the El Faro's sinking, the entire Tote fleet has been outfitted with updated weather reporting systems that provide routing help to captains.

Asked why the company waited so long to give their ships this technology, Morrell said he didn't know.

The hearings resume Wednesday and are expected to last through next week. The public hearings are being held at the Prime Osborn Convention Center from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day except Sunday through Feb. 26. WJXT is streaming the hearings live on News4Jax.com.