Final probe into the sinking of El Faro may bring safety reform for ships

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) begins the final meeting of the probe into the El Faro maritime disaster. The NTSB has drafted new safety recommendations in response to the tragedy.

Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union/AP
Family members stand behind portraits of their loved ones who were aboard the El Faro when it sank. The group is attending a US Coast Guard investigative hearing on the incident in Jacksonville, Fla. in February 2017. The maritime disaster is prompting the review of ship safety recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Federal accident investigators on Tuesday began their final meeting to determine the probable cause of the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro, the worst maritime disaster for a US-flagged vessel in decades, resulting in the deaths of 33 mariners.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt opened the meeting in Washington, D.C., saying the more than two-year-long investigation was a "herculean effort" that included multiple trips to the wreckage, 15,000-feet down on the sea floor. He said the board will issue 53 draft safety recommendations related to the Oct. 1, 2015, loss of the 790-foot-long ship near the Bahamas.

The fully loaded El Faro sank about 34 hours after leaving Jacksonville, Florida, on a cargo run to Puerto Rico, after losing propulsion while sailing through Hurricane Joaquin.

The NTSB board was digging into problems with weather forecasting, management of the freighter, the suitability of the ship's lifeboats, and the oversight of the vessel by its owner, TOTE Maritime.

"One marine tragedy can point to many improvements. After the RMS Titanic sank, the world responded with the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, which has saved countless lives," Mr. Sumwalt said.

The board's final report follows one issued by the US Coast Guard on the second anniversary of the ship's sinking. The Coast Guard's report placed primary blame on ship Capt. Michael Davidson, who they said underestimated the hurricane's strength and overestimated the ability of the 40-year-old ship to withstand it.

According to transcripts of audio recovered from the ship's voyage data recorder, or "black box," Mr. Davidson refused his crew's suggestions to take a slower, safer route as the storm grew into a Category 3 hurricane.

The recorder caught the final hours of the ship's increasingly desperate crew as they tried to save the El Faro and themselves.

The NTSB and Coast Guard also have said the ship's owner TOTE violated safety regulations requiring the crew to be well rested, and noted that the company had not replaced a safety officer management position.

TOTE also stopped employing port helpers to safely load cargo. The Coast Guard found that El Faro's crew had difficulty keeping up with the brisk loading pace required to keep the ship on schedule ahead of the storm.

The ship also had open-top lifeboats, unlike the closed-top lifeboats used on modern ships. While legal, the ship's use of the older-style boats was only allowed because of an exemption to safety rules for older ships like the El Faro.

The Coast Guard is seeking civil penalties against TOTE, but not criminal.

The NTSB's recommendations are not law, but are used to guide industry changes or updates to existing safety procedures overseen by the US Coast Guard and so-called "classification societies" like the American Bureau of Shipping, which conducts a large percentage of marine inspections on the Guard's behalf. The recommendations also can be used by Congress to create new laws meant to improve safety.

Larry Brennan, a professor of maritime law at Fordham Law School and a retired US Navy captain, said the NTSB's recommendations are taken seriously, and could create a safer working environment for mariners in the future. For example, the board could call for the removal of the safety exemption that allowed the El Faro to legally use old lifeboats.

"No one should use open boats in rough weather, or any weather," Brennan said. "If the NTSB takes an aggressive course, they may be able to effectively change regulations and policies that will enhance safety at sea."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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