A formal investigation into the fatal sinking of a cargo vessel during a hurricane featured expert witness testimony from a former captain of the ship and an expert on navigating storms. Experts testified during a public hearing with the goal of helping the review board determine potential liability and identifying opportunities for improved safety measures on large cargo ships.
Federal Investigation Hearings review the Sinking of Cargo Ship El Faro
Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation held the second of three rounds of investigatory hearings regarding the 2015 sinking of the ocean cargo ship El Faro. On October 1, 2015, the El Faro sank near the Bahamas while en route to Puerto Rico when it navigated into the path of Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 souls on board died in one of the worst maritime disasters of a US ship in more than 30 years, and the Coast Guard subsequently took up the investigation in order to identify potential gaps in safety and communication which may have caused the tragedy.
During the course of the hearings, the Coast Guard’s investigatory board heard testimony on shipping standards, inspection requirements, communication practices in the shipping industry, and navigation strategy when approaching hurricanes. Tote Maritime, the company El Faro shipped for, and inspectors employed by the Coast Guard came under particular scrutiny for potential failures in ship maintenance and safety reviews, with expert witnesses on ocean shipping coming before the board to offer information which may help investigators reach conclusions about the disaster and determine future safety procedures.
Expert Witnesses Testify in El Faro Sinking Hearings
Former El Faro captain Jack Hearn testified before the investigative committee about the ship’s performance during cargo runs. Captain Hearn, who sailed the ship when it was known as the Northern Lights and operated out of Alaska, testified as an expert in navigating and managing the El Faro. Hearn told the committee that the ship was more difficult to control when it carried cargo containers, and that the hatches could not open after the ship was underway. Had the hatches opened, the ship could better manage water intake during storms, and become more difficult to sink. Hearn also told investigators that it was customary for delays of up to several hours before captains were given permission to change course, saying that Tote Maritime’s delay in responding to El Faro’s request to alter its heading before the crash was not uncommon.
James Franklin, a hurricane expert witness, testified before the committee about the challenges of predicting the movement of Hurricane Jaoquin. According to Franklin, the hurricane was predicted to move away from the United States and out of the El Faro’s planned route to Puerto Rico before the storm unexpectedly stopped and moved directly into the ship’s path. The hurricane expert told Coast Guard investigators that the southward motion of the storm which caused the unexpected change in direction is unusual, particularly considering how strong of a storm Jaoquin was. Both Franklin and Hearn noted that navigating when hit by a hurricane is difficult as the ship would just be trying to stay afloat, suggesting that once the El Faro was hit by the storm there was very little crew members could have done.
Coast Guard Inquiries into El Faro Sinking will Continue
In addition to experts on piloting the large cargo ship and on hurricane storms, the Coast Guard investigators heard testimony about safety and inspection practices customary for the maritime shipping industry. Captain Hearn’s testimony about some of the features of the El Faro which may have exposed vulnerabilities could lead to changes in inspection requirements and safety standards, and Franklin’s expert hurricane testimony may suggest the need for greater caution when navigating near or around potential hurricane pathways.
The Coast Guard announced it will conduct one more series of hearings later this year before announcing its findings of liability and responsibility for the El Faro’s sinking. The investigative board hopes to have the ship’s data recorder which contains information about the El Faro’s final 12 hours, but the device will be difficult to recover from the wreckage. Without hard evidence of the El Faro’s fateful voyage, the investigators will continue to rely on maritime shipping expert witnesses in order to assess responsibility for the tragedy.