Coast Guard’s final report on El Faro sinking blames

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Coast Guard’s final report and recommendations for mariners and their employers on the fatal sinking of the El Faro freighter during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 pins blame on its parent shipping firm, as well as the ship’s captain.


But it leaves penalties, if any, for later and says the Coast Guard’s top officer in Jacksonville, Fla., should make that decision.


The Coast Guard itself doesn’t quite get away scot-free in the report its commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft, released in late December. The document says the Coast Guard delegates too much responsibility for inspecting ships for seaworthiness and safety to private companies, rather than doing the job itself.


And Zukunft recommended his agency implement specific safety measures for mariners, including requiring locator lights on all individual life vests and ending the old prac-tice of having uncovered lifeboats – which could easily get swamped by storm water – on deck.


The admiral’s report also recommended tighter and more constant ship-to-shore communication between freighter captains and company and Coast Guard shore-side overseers. And it said there should be a specific course for captains in how to deal with extremely heavy weather, such as hurricanes.


The report came almost two-and-a-half years after the El Faro, crewed by 27 Seafarers, sank in turbulent seas after virtually sailing into the hurricane off the east coast of Florida near the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015.  All the crewmembers drowned. So did six Polish mariners who were on board and proceeding to an assignment to upgrade the elderly freighter.


The Coast Guard said the main reason the ship sank was the captain sailed a course he believed could avoid Hurricane Joaquin, but the storm veered and he didn’t. He sailed right into it.


“The loss of the El Faro and all 33 crew members was a tragic and preventable accident,” Zukunft said, responding to an earlier Marine Board of Inquiry report on the sinking. The board, after months of impartial investigation and interviews – plus inspections of another freighter which was literally El Faro’s sister ship — reached almost identical conclusions.


But it also said the El Faro’s owner, Tote Services Inc., was lax in safety procedures, training and oversight, and the El Faro itself was leaky due to an abundance of vents and ports that could not be closed watertight when the ship encountered heavy seas.


In addition, the report says, the El Faro was thrown off balance and keeled over before sinking because its cargo – cars – were inadequately secured below decks, broke loose when the high seas hit and caused the ship to dangerously list. The report faults both TSI and the private firms which were supposed to check it for safety before it departed Jacksonville for that.


But after all the fact-finding, Zukunft does not recommend specific fines against El Faro’s owner or the oversight firms that failed.


“While many factors contributed” to the sinking, “by far the most prominent was the master’s (captain’s) decision to sail the ship in close proximity to a Category 3 hurricane. There were multiple opportunities to take alternate, safer routes as the storm approached,” and the mates warned the captain about its threat, despite “its unpredictable course and intensity.”


“The combination of these actions and events” put the El Faro into the heavy seas at the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, the report said, in “conditions prudent mariners avoid.”


But TSI comes in for a large share of the blame, too.


The report summarizes “numerous failures” by the firm “to properly fulfill its obligations” under international safety management codes for freighters. TSI’s failures included “substandard materiel conditions, failure to provide basic safety training” to the six Polish mariners, “failure to conduct proper lifeboat drills, and most relevant, failure to provide proper shoreside support to the (ship’s) master to enable him to perform his duties safely.”


Not only that, but TSI has an operations manual telling its mariners and their shoreside supporters what to train for and what to do about hazardous conditions. But its own designated shore contact for the El Faro testified the firm “deliberately abandoned assisting masters with heavy weather planning, storm system monitoring and avoidance.”


“In an area prone to hurricanes, such a decision is irresponsible and inexcusable.”


Zukunft got 55 comments on his report, including objections from the captain’s widow. One commenter questioned the lack of high fines against TSI – and other maritime firms.


“The Coast Guard received one comment stating any penalties should be high enough to send a message to the shipping industry of the necessity to comply with statutes and regulations” about safety and sailing into high seas, Zukunft wrote.


“The Coast Guard takes no action on this comment at this time. This comment is directed towards penalty enforcement and will be directed to” the Coast Guard’s Jacksonville sector. “Any resulting penalties will be assessed in accordance with established” laws, Zukunft wrote. He did not specify what fines those laws allow.

The Seafarers, who represented the El Faro crew members, acknowledged Zukunft’s report and recommendations. “The commandant was expected to publish a decision outlining the final agency actions taken in response to the recommendations around mid-December,” union President Mike Sacco said in a column in Seafarers Log.

Source: PAI