Inspector: El Faro was well-maintained ship

Jacksonville-based cargo ship sank in Caribbean during Hurricane Joaquin

By Heather Leigh - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Two former U.S. Coast Guard inspectors for Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro testified Wednesday as the Coast Guard Marine Board continues to investigate the ship's ill-fated final voyage.

The ship sank Oct. 1 near the Bahamas en route to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew members aboard died.

Jerry McMillan told the panel Wednesday that he was on the ship in March of 2015 inspecting several things including cargo gear lashings, containers, life jackets and emergency suits, the deck, hall openings, hatches and watertight doors. 

He said everything seemed well-maintained and in working order.

"Everything looked like it was in good condition. It's an older vessel, but it looked like everything was being maintained," McMillan said. 

McMillan testified that the crew on board was very proficient. He said it was clear they knew what they were doing in terms of their jobs on the ship, as well as putting on the gear during emergency drills. 

"The crew for the firefighting drills were actually very proficient. You can tell they've been doing a lot of training. They knew exactly what they were doing," McMillan said. 

WATCH: El Faro hearings

McMillan said one thing they don't practice with crews is getting into the lifeboats, and lowering them into the water, because it is dangerous.

"It's amazing how many accidents happen while you're testing a lifeboat and lowering it into the water with crew on board. You'd think that would be a relatively normal procedure, but the number of accidents that occur are pretty amazing and pretty outstanding," said Rod Sullivan, maritime attorney. 

Sullivan said with a 15-degree list, the condition the El Faro was in before it sank, it would be impossible to get the lifeboats down anyway. One reason why Sullivan said in 1986, free fall, fully covered lifeboats began being required on new ships because gravity drops them off the stern and they can handle rough seas.

McMillan said TOTE, which owned El Faro, is one of the better operators he inspects and seems to be a lot better in the safety and management of its vessels. He said there were other companies out of the San Juan sector that were more of a concern to Coast Guard than TOTE.

The Coast Guard panel brought up a report that showed two open issues on the ship that were set to be repaired in February of 2016: Frames on the ship were found detached from the tank top, as well as some fracturing, and one of the bulk heads connecting to the main deck was old and wasted.

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McMillan said that those issues seemed minor.

He also said often times, he would get very little notice when it came to attending the Coast Guard's Alternate Compliance Program annual inspection. But he said surveyors told him they couldn't help that because they also got short notice. The American Bureau of Shipping said it's the owners responsibility to give proper notification.

Capt. of El Faro's sister ship shared hurricane forecast

As El Faro sailed from Jacksonville toward Puerto Rico on what would be its final voyage, it passed its sister ship El Yunque returning to JaxPort.  

On Tuesday, the captain of the El Yunque told the board that he trusted the judgment of El Faro's captain. 

Capt. Kevin Stith said he had sailed multiple times as chief mate on El Faro under Capt. Michael Davidson. 

Stith testified that he noticed the forecasts for Hurricane Joaquin were wrong and he sped up to avoid the storm. He said he also contacted El Faro to let him know the conditions El Yunque was experiencing and ask about Davidson's plan to avoid the storm.

"I trusted Capt. Davidson’s experience, especially on this route, and I knew somewhat of his background from talking to him in different situations he encountered," Stith said.

Stith said Davidson emailed him back saying he was aware of Joaquin in the Caribbean and that he already planned to alter his course south from the normal path. Davidson said his calculations had him passing 65 nautical miles from Joaquin.

"I felt that if he had a solid plan, that it was well thought-out and he had considered everything," Stith said. "I thought that if he had a plan, it was appropriate."

The board asked Stith about his voyage with Davidson in August during Tropical Storm Erika. Stith said that from the time of departure, he advised the crew to prepare for heavy weather during the trip and secure their rooms.

The marine board is on its second week of hearings at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville. 

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