El Faro captain ignored storm reports before tragedy: U.S. authorities

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The freighter El Faro sank in 2015, killing all 33 people aboard in the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades, after the captain ignored reports the ship was heading directly into a strengthening hurricane, a U.S. safety board concluded on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: The stern of the El Faro is shown on the ocean floor taken from an underwater video camera November 1, 2015. Courtesy National Transportation Safety Board/Handout via REUTERS

According to the preliminary findings of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the sinking, Captain Michael Davidson relied on outdated weather information as he headed into the storm, an NTSB meeting was told.

The NTSB panel is reviewing more than 70 findings and 50-plus recommendations stemming from the sinking of the 790-foot (241-meter) freighter off the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin.

“This report will be studied by mariners young and old for many years, and I‘m confident that this tragedy at sea, and the lessons from this investigation, will help improve safety for future generations of mariners,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in an opening statement.

The El Faro, a 40-year-old freighter operated by Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, disappeared two days after leaving Jacksonville, Florida, loaded with containers and vehicles bound for Puerto Rico.

FILE PHOTO: A closeup view of the El Faro navigation bridge is shown on the ocean floor taken by an underwater video camera November 12, 2015. Courtesy National Transportation Board/Handout via REUTERS

The wreck site was found on Oct. 31, 2015, more than 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

The minute-by-minute account of El Faro’s final hours logged by the vessel’s data recorder shows Davidson and his chief mate made two minor course corrections to the south to avoid Joaquin, investigator-in-charge Brian Young told the meeting.

Davidson did not switch course as Joaquin tracked south, however, despite three calls to his quarters to tell him that the El Faro was heading into the storm. He also relied on outdated weather information provided by Bon Voyage System computer software, Young said.

Shortly before 6 a.m. on Oct. 1, the listing vessel was reported taking on water amid hurricane-force winds. It lost propulsion at 6:16 a.m. and Davidson gave the order to abandon ship at 7:29 a.m. The recording ended 10 minutes later.

The safety board has said major safety issues that contributed to the tragedy were the captain’s actions, outdated weather information, management of the bridge crew, damage control, suitability of lifeboats and oversight by Tote Maritime.

A preliminary report submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard found that the El Faro was operating with a minimum margin of stability and would not have met standards for a ship built today.

Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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