TAMPA, Florida — U.S. Coast Guard investigators on Monday resumed a probe of last year’s deadly sinking of the cargo ship El Faro off the Bahamas, beginning two weeks of hearings to examine the vessel’s operations, weather forecasts and regulatory oversight.
Captain Eric Bryson, who helped launch El Faro on its final voyage, told the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation panel that the ship’s captain had said he planned to “go out and shoot under” a storm brewing in the Caribbean.
Bryson was among some two dozen experts set to testify during a second round of hearings on the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
All 33 crew members on board El Faro died when the 790-foot ship sank during a hurricane on Oct. 1, two days after leaving Jacksonville on a cargo run to Puerto Rico.
Five of the crew, including the captain, had connections to Maine.
Among crew members lost were 53-year-old Captain Michael Davidson of Windham, a 1988 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, a 2012 graduate of Maine Maritime; Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland, a 2004 graduate of Maine Maritime; and Dylan Meklin, 23, a 2010 graduate of Rockland District High School and a 2015 graduate of Maine Maritime. Another crew member, Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Maine Maritime in 2011.
TOTE Services reportedly settled wrongful death claims with the families of three Maine crew members in March, according to a notice filed in federal court in Florida.
The owner of El Faro will pay $500,000 plus economic losses to the families of Meklin, Randolph and Holland.
Captain James Fudaker, a docking pilot at the Jacksonville port who also interacted with the ship before it departed, testified the voyage began normally.
“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” he said at the hearing. Fudaker told investigators he was not aware of deficiencies on an equipment list that he checked before the ship’s departure.
Testimony from a former master of the ship also offered little insight into what went wrong.
“To me, the El Faro was a Cadillac. She rode well,” Captain Eric Axelsson told the panel, adding that he did not consider the vessel vulnerable.
During its first meeting in February, the Coast Guard panel heard the final phone call from Davidson, a veteran mariner, who warned that the “clock was ticking” as his vessel took on water.
Executives with the ship’s operator, Tote Services, testified the captain was responsible for decisions leading to the disaster.
The Coast Guard panel is looking for evidence of negligence or misconduct, as well as the cause of the sinking. Convened only for the most serious disasters, the panel plans a third set of hearings at a yet unscheduled date.
By then, it hopes to have evidence from the ship’s voyage data recorder, which may contain information from the vessel’s final hours and communications from its bridge before the sinking. The recorder has been located in 15,000 feet of water off the Bahamas, but authorities have not been able to retrieve it.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard panel expects to issue a report and could make recommendations on safety standards to prevent a similar disaster in the future.