The captain of the U.S. cargo ship that sank off the Bahamas in a hurricane last fall, killing all 33 people on board, was responsible for decisions that put the vessel in the path of the storm, the company that operated the vessel said on Tuesday.
But members of a U.S. Coast Guard panel examining the sinking questioned that assessment and why the company had produced only a handful of email exchanges with the captain during the ill-fated voyage.
The 790-foot El Faro went down off the Bahamas on Oct. 1 while on a cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico. It was the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
Philip Morrell, an executive with ship operator Tote Services, said the captain had “total responsibility,” including final determinations about safety, when to sail and the route.
The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation is looking for evidence of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law by licensed or certified individuals.
Among 33 crew members lost aboard El Faro were five with Maine connections: Davidson of Windham, a 1988 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, a 2012 graduate of Maine Maritime; Danielle Randolph, 34, also of Rockland and 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.
Panelists noted a company email sent to Davidson, which said he was authorized to change his route to avoid the storm. But Morrell responded that the captain did not need company permission to change course.
The board’s marine casualty expert Keith Fawcett questioned why the company produced relatively few emails exchanged between the captain and company during the voyage, compared with thousands exchanged during previous hurricanes. Morrell said he did not know.
The board is convened only for the most serious accidents or those with considerable national significance. It last met to investigate the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
Investigators first will trace the El Faro’s history during a 10-day hearing in Jacksonville, Florida. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said it found the crew had proper credentials and the ship carried the required safety, lifesaving and communications equipment.
A second hearing session, which has not been scheduled, will focus on the ship’s final voyage, including cargo loading, weather conditions and navigation, the Coast Guard said.
Davidson’s wife, Theresa, was named a party of interest in the case. She is allowed to question witnesses but so far has declined to do.
Relatives of the dead El Faro crew members have sued Tote, saying the ship was not seaworthy and should have avoided the hurricane.
Tote has blamed the accident on a loss of power due to unknown causes and has invoked a 19th century maritime law that would limit its financial liability.
TOTE Maritime, the vessel’s owner, already has agreed to pay $500,000 plus economic loss damages to the families of 10 crew members, including Davidson, according to a notice filed in federal court in Florida.
Davidson was the only crew member with Maine ties to be included in the recent claims settlement that involves the estates of 10 of the crew members.
The National Transportation Safety Board will try again in April to recover the ship’s voyage data recorder from the wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.