Captain also cited in Coast Guard report

El Faro owner blamed for loss of cargo ship, crew of 33

By Stephen Betts | Oct 01, 2017

Jacksonville, Florida — A long-awaited report by the U.S. Coast Guard has concluded that the owner of the cargo ship El Faro failed on many fronts that ultimately led to the loss of the vessel and its 33 crew members two years ago in what was one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.

Lost in that sinking off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin were 34-year-old second mate Danielle Randolph and 23-year-old third assistant engineer Dylan Meklin, both of Rockland. Both graduated from Rockland District High School and Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

The Coast Guard released the report and held a news conference Sunday morning, Oct, 1, in Jacksonville, from which the 790-foot-long cargo ship departed for its final trip on the way to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The report's release came on the second anniversary of the sinking.

The Coast Guard concluded in its report that the El Faro's owner, TOTE Services Inc., did not ensure the safety of marine operations and failed to provide shoreside nautical operations supports to its vessels; did not identify heavy weather as a risk in its safety management system; did not identify the risk of heavy weather when preparing, evaluating and approving the voyage plan prior to departure; along with its ship’s officers was not aware of the vessel's vulnerabilities and operating limitations in heavy weather conditions; and did not provide the tools and protocols for accurate weather observations.

TOTE also did not provide adequate support and oversight to the crew during that voyage.

Last year, TOTE Services paid $500,000 plus unspecified economic losses each to the families of Meklin and Randolph.

The Coast Guard  also found that the National Weather Service issued a tropical weather forecast that was inaccurate.

The report also found that the captain of the El Faro -- 53-year-old Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham -- did not fulfill his responsibilities during the final hours because he did not keep track of the storm and failed to act on requests to change course to avoid the worst of the storm.

The captain was also faulted for not slowing the speed of the vessel as it approached the hurricane and did not consider the impact on the ship's engineering system from the weather conditions.

The El Faro lost its steam-turbine propulsion system as it neared the eye of the hurricane. The ship then took on water and sank.

The Coast Guard report also found that a conversion of the ballast system of the El Faro in 2005-2006 -- which converted outboard ballast tanks to fixed ballasts -- severely limited the vessel's ability to improve stability in heavy seas or when there was flooding.

The captain and crew also did not ensure that longshoremen secured cargo properly, which led to the cargo's breaking loose during the storm.

The cumulative effects of anxiety, fatigue and vessel motion from the heavy seas also degraded the crew's decision-making and physical performance, the Coast Guard found.

The investigation also found the Coast Guard did not provide proper oversight to make sure that TOTE had provided proper training to the crew to survive when abandoning ship. The report also concluded that the order to abandon ship only occurred 10 minutes before the El Faro sank. The captain also failed to issue a final report that could have better marked where the crew was located, according to the report.

And while the El Faro's lifeboats met applicable standards, the Coast Guard said, they were completely inadequate for the conditions the crew faced. Hurricane Joaquin increased rapidly, with winds of 130 miles per hour, when it reached the Bahamas. Seas were 20 to 30 feet.

The Coast Guard is recommending changes, including improved lifeboats, better alarms and installation of closed-circuit televisions in unmanned areas where the cargo is stored.

The Coast Guard is not recommending any criminal action against anyone, but is recommending civil penalties against TOTE, including for failure to notify the Coast Guard of repairs made to the ship shortly before it departed from Jacksonville on its final trip.

Meklin was the youngest crew member on the ship.

The cargo ship had left Jacksonville at 8 p.m. Sept. 29, 2015. The forecast for Joaquin changed a few hours after the ship departed, with the update calling for the storm to move more to the southwest toward the Bahamas.

Joaquin rapidly intensified Sept. 30. At about 11 p.m. that night, the captain was called about the worsening weather forecast, but he said there would be no change in course and did not come to the bridge.

Recorded conversations during the early morning of Oct. 1 include a comment that crew members did not take safety drills seriously and did not even check to see if their survival suits fit.

The captain awoke and reached the bridge shortly after 4 a.m.

Between then and 6 a.m., reports of flooding came in and shortly after 6 a.m propulsion was lost.

The ship began to list and at about 7 a.m., the captain issued a general alarm for all crew to be up. The last recorded conversation on the ship was at 7:39 a.m.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Dale Hayward | Oct 01, 2017 22:07

Please, Steve, the headline should have listed all those blamed. Singling out one for a headline appears to be pointing a protective finger of the others. Only my feeling, do not change media rules for me.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 01, 2017 16:52

This is a sad commentary of young lives lost due to a captain sleeping and ignoring the peril. My condolences to the parents.

Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Oct 01, 2017 12:56

There is plenty of blame all around. "...Coast Guard not recommending any criminal action against anyone..." Huh! Appears the Coast Guard, itself, has its share of culpability. While a maritime career is full of risks, this crew was put at lethal risk by many entities. TOTE has a great deal of culpability to carry...

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