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Coast Guard Set To Release Report On El Faro Sinking Sunday

Sep 28, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 2:32 pm

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation is ready to release its final report on the sinking of cargo ship El Faro in Jacksonville Sunday — two years after the crew of 33 tragically perished on route to Puerto Rico. The freighter sailed directly into the path of category 4 Hurricane Joaquin.

The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation held six weeks of hearings in the River City examining El Faro Captain Michael Davidson’s leadership, the ship’s condition, crew training, the effectiveness of navigation and weather tracking technology and company policy. After the hearing, Board Chair Captain Jason Neubauer described the scope of the probe.

“This is one of the largest investigations in Coast Guard history. I had been involved in some formal hearings before, but nothing of this magnitude,” he said. “I think a similar type of Marine Board of Investigation was Deepwater Horizon and that was seven hearings, but I wasn't a part of that.”

In a brief emailed statement Wednesday Neubauer again reiterated how the families of the lost were the driving force behind the investigation.

“The most important thing to remember is that 33 people lost their lives in this tragedy. If adopted, we believe the safety recommendations in our report will improve safety of life at sea,” he wrote.

Throughout the final hearing, the board leaned heavily on the ship’s voyage data recorder and the 26 hours of transcribed conversation before the ship sank. The voices of captain and crew gave the board an important glimpse into how they felt about safety, their employer, the ship’s condition and each other.

The final hearing closed with the words of the captain’s widow, Theresa Davidson. Her attorney,  William Bennett read a letter she wrote while she listened by phone.

“Throughout the course of this investigation you learned a little bit about Michael as a ship’s captain. Crewmembers, both licensed and unlicensed, who sailed with Michael described him as meticulous, concerned for safety, caring for the welfare of his crew and a true professional,” he read through tears.

Theresa Davidson also thanked the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board for their work, and ship owner and operator TOTE Services for its cooperation.

Though Sunday’s release will be the final report from investigators, the recommendations will still have to go through Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft. He can outright reject recommendations, accept them or accept them with caveats.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which worked with the Coast Guard as part as the Marine Board of Investigation, will issue its own separate recommendations in December.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at rbenk@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

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