El Faro sailed with outdated weather forecast

Jacksonville-based cargo ship sank in Caribbean during Hurricane Joaquin

By Heather Leigh - Reporter, Jason Dearen, Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The ill-fated El Faro cargo ship was sent outdated weather forecasts for what became Hurricane Joaquin hours after it set sail, according to testimony Wednesday before a U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.

The ship, which left Jacksonville on Sept. 30, sank Oct. 1 near the Bahamas en route to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Joaquin.

According to testimony Wednesday in the second round of hearings into the ship's sinking, the forecasts El Faro's crew were sent Sept. 30 were about 10 hours old.

According to executives with Applied Weather Technology, which delivers forecasts through the BonVoyage system, the forecasts come from the National Weather Service, but the data must be inputted into the BonVoyage system, which can take nearly nine hours.

The BonVoyage system provides a forecast that extends out to at least 16 days, showing surface pressure, wind, waves and swells. It also provides a three-day forecast for surface events.

It takes roughly three hours for the National Weather Service to push an updated forecast to the public. Then it takes AWT a few hours to get the data plugged into its system, essentially that means the forecasts on the ship are typically old.

The attorney representing Capt. Michael Davidson's widow asked the company's representatives if the information being pushed out is nine hours old. They confirmed that it is.

They also confirmed to the investigative panel that the projected path for Hurricane Joaquin was out-of-date by at least 10 hours at 5 a.m. Sept. 30, as El Faro was hours out to sea. It was a duplicate of the track that came in six hours before that.

The company said the track was processed late and didn't make it into the updated storm package.

That essentially means El Faro's crew did not have an accurate track of the storm.

"The underlining model data was up-to-date,” said Rich Brown, vice president of operations for AWT. “The winds, the waves, the pressure were all up-to-date. The storm track was out-of-date.”

By about 10 hours, Brown admitted.

About 12 hours after seeing the inaccurate map, Davidson reported a “marine emergency” as water made its way into three parts of the hull, and the ship lost propulsion in the middle of the storm.

“What I take away from this is if you are in a position to access the internet, you have much quicker data being able to download this than a service like this,” maritime attorney Rod Sullivan said. “Now if you're going across the ocean, and you don't have internet access like this, and you're someone like the El Faro, I don't think it provided much information."

Jim Wagstaff, the vice president of operations for TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, was questioned by the panel on the ship's mechanical safety and boiler repairs.

“I may have been copied on an email, but it isn't something I would personally be managing,” he said. “That's what we have TOTE services for. We depend on them to handle those types of problems.”

Ex-ship captain says he was fired after airing safety fears

A cargo ship captain who worked for the company that owned the doomed El Faro testified Tuesday that he was fired after reporting safety concerns about his ship.

Capt. Jack Hearn, who sailed for a TOTE Services Inc. subsidiary, testified before the panel that is investigating the 41-year-old El Faro's sinking last October.

The Marine Board of Investigation is seeking information about the vessel's stability and whether there were mistakes in weather forecasting or cargo loading before the ship's final voyage. Key questions also remain about routing decisions made by its captain.

DOCUMENT: El Faro hearings testimony schedule

On and before Oct. 1, as Davidson was headed to Puerto Rico from Jacksonville, he indicated to colleagues that he thought he could sail south of the storm. Instead, the ship lost propulsion and got stuck in Hurricane Joaquin, eventually going down in 15,000 feet of water. There were no survivors.

Hearn, who sailed the El Faro's sister ship, the El Morro, said that after he raised concerns about holes in his own ship, TOTE reluctantly reported them to the Coast Guard -- but only after he took a trip without the needed repairs.

"The port engineer did not report (the holes) to the Coast Guard. I was disappointed," he said. Back ashore, the holes were reported and addressed eventually, he said.

He said his relationship with the port engineers became strained after the incident.

Weeks later, Hearn said, a TOTE official came onboard and asked him to resign and get help finding a new job, or be fired.

Eventually, Hearn said, he asked the company to investigate the matter. He said he was fired before entering into arbitration with TOTE.

Previous testimony revealed that parts of the boilers on the 790-foot El Faro had deteriorated severely and needed to be replaced, yet TOTE's engineers believed it was still safe enough to sail. Those parts were set to be replaced in November, and the ship's October voyage was scheduled to be its last before being replaced by a newer vessel on the Puerto Rico run.

The condition of the El Faro, along with Davidson's access to weather information, have been themes throughout the investigative hearings.

James Franklin, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center's hurricane specialist unit, testified Tuesday that the agency's initial forecasts of Joaquin contained errors "much larger than normal."

Franklin said Joaquin was initially forecast as a "relatively weak system" that would head west-northwest and dissipate in the days when the El Faro was sailing between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. Instead, Joaquin moved south-southwest and strengthened into a strong hurricane and was 536 miles off its predicted initial track.

Davidson was aware of the storm, according to emails and texts he sent colleagues. He emailed TOTE officials the day before the ship sank advising that he may take a slower, safer route. He was given the OK by a TOTE manager, but the ship never made it.

TOTE's attorneys at the hearing did not address Hearn's testimony.

But William Bennett, an attorney for Davidson's widow, read from a letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection accusing the El Morro and its crew of smuggling cocaine. It was not clear how the letter was relevant to the El Faro.

Hearn confirmed knowledge of the letter but didn't offer further comment on the incident. The Coast Guard refused to release the letter to AP, saying it would be available after the panel's investigation is complete.

A previous two weeks of hearings into the incident wrapped up in February. Since then, a deep-sea research vessel found El Faro's data recorder but was not able to retrieve it.

Sullivan said the next question is for the Navy. Should the money be spent to send another vessel to go try to retrieve the data recorder, and if it were to be brought up, would it be useful in finding out what happened since it's been underwater for so long?

These hearings are scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday through May 27 at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.

Copyright 2016 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.