NTSB blames captain, outdated methods for El Faro sinking

By Allen Cone  |  Dec. 13, 2017 at 11:38 AM
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Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Bad decisions by the captain of the cargo ship El Faro, and poor safety protocols led to its sinking two years ago, federal investigators said.

During a public hearing Tuesday, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced the conclusion of its investigation into the deadliest disaster of a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than 30 years. The 400-report included 30,000 pages of material.

All 33 crew members aboard the cargo vessel died when it sank near the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015, while en route from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico.

Investigators found that the 1970s-era ship had not been updated to modern safety standards, relied on outdated weather maps and employed deficient safety protocols when it encountered Hurricane Joaquin.

Data from the ship's final 26 hours was recovered from the wreckage last year.

"We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew's concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather," NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said. "But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions."

In his opening statement, Sumwalt said Capt. Michael Davidson, who died in the accident, did not switch routes to steer clear of the storm. The NTSB said he consulted outdated weather forecasts and ignored suggestions from his bridge officers to take the ship farther south. Instead, he ordered a course that intersected with Joaquin's path, which included 35-foot seas and 100 mph winds.

Then, while sailing into the outer bands of the storm, the El Faro's speed decreased and it began to list to the right in strong winds and seas hours before it sank.

Seawater entered the ship's cargo area and other openings -- and automobiles in the hold broke free and likely ruptured a pipe. The ship also lost propulsion about 90 minutes before the sinking.

Davidson ordered the crew to abandon ship, but the El Faro's required life rafts and uncovered lifeboats were ineffective in the hurricane conditions.

"Although El Faro and its crew should never have found themselves in such treacherous weather, that ship was not destined to sink," Sumwalt said. "If the crew had more information about the status of the hatches, how to best manage the flooding situation, and the ship's vulnerabilities when in a sustained list, the accident might have been prevented."

The NTSB's 29-month investigation made several recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Communications Commission and National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

"I'm confident that this tragedy at sea, and the lessons from this investigation, will help improve safety for future generations of mariners." Sumwalt said.

The U.S. Coast Guard issued a 199-page report in October that said mistakes by Davidson led to the sinking. If he'd survived, the Coast Guard said, he would have faced negligence charges.

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