Former El Faro crew member says there was hostility, hesitation to report safety concerns

by: Lorena Inclan, Action News Jax Updated:

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A former El Faro chief mate was demoted for sleeping on watch. The incident surfaced during Tuesday’s testimony at the Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking.

The incident came up during a conversation between third mate Jeremie Riehm and able-bodied seaman Jack Jackson that could be heard on the ship’s voyage data recorder.

At one point in the conversation, Riehm said, “Then he got caught and nothing happened. Then he got caught again and nothing happened.”

“The third mate and the AB are talking about one of the chief mates that fell asleep on a watch,” said board member Keith Fawcett.

That incident was reported anonymously via text message to TOTE Services’ current director of fleet safety John Lawrence.

“He initiated it with sending me some pictures of a person sleeping on a stool,” said Lawrence.

The conversation captured on the VDR showed the crew members were skeptical that any punishment was handed down.

Tuesday’s testimony revealed that the chief mate in question got demoted as a result but Lawrence questioned the credibility of the tipster from the start.

“No time stamp, no concrete evidence of actual situation,” said Fawcett quoting an email sent by Lawrence to a TOTE management executive.

In the email, Lawrence also seemed interested in the use of the cellphone to capture the infraction.

“Makes me feel we should not be allowing personal cellphones while on watch. Many of our vessels have policy,” as read aloud by Fawcett quoting Lawrence’s email.

The board went further asking if anyone checked the work/rest hour logs of the chief mate who fell asleep.

“I did not, I don’t recall if anyone else looked at it,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence said he stands by TOTE’s safety management system in how it handled that incident.

But a former El Faro crew member who served as an able-bodied seaman, Marvin Hearman III, cast doubt on the system and painted a picture of hostility among the crew.

Hearman said there was also hesitation among the crew to report safety concerns.

“You would get fired if you called the DP [designated person], that’s on any ship in the fleet,” said Hearman.

Hearman said he no longer works in the maritime industry because “we don’t have a voice”.

According to Hearman, he sent the photos of the chief mate sleeping on behalf of a group of crew members who had collectively gathered evidence of about 50 to 60 photos.

“We downloaded an app called TextPlus and we sent it off the app because we knew that if it gets traced back to us we would lose our job,” said Hearman.

Hearman said he tried waking up the chief mate and pulled him to the side to warn him.

TOTE attorneys pushed back on his testimony, bringing up a Customs and Border Patrol visit to the vessel to check Hearman’s room for drugs, an incident Hearman claimed was retribution for reporting the sleeping on watch situation.

“Three CBP agents on the vessel at your room could not have been in retribution for you sending the pictures, right? Because they didn’t know who sent them,” said Jack Fornaciari, TOTE attorney.

Hearman said he had to undergo a drug test after that incident and it came back negative. He eventually hired a lawyer to lodge a formal complaint against TOTE. It’s unclear where that complaint stands.

Hearman was visibly upset during a brief recess. He knew several crew members who were aboard the final voyage and questioned why the company didn’t intervene in what he called a preventable casualty.

“If you can call to worry about fuel why you can’t call to worry about 33 lives? I lost my brothers for real,” said Hearman.

During many of his responses, family members sitting in the audience could be seen nodding their heads in agreement with Hearman.

TOTE also questioned why it took Hearman so long to send the photos and asked if it was revenge for the chief mate cutting his overtime hours.

Hearman said it was not revenge and that the overtime hours were made up in a day.

“We never had a problem, he had a problem with the crew,” said Hearman.

TOTE spokesman Darrell Wilson released a statement in response to Hearman’s testimony:

“While we appreciate Mr. Hearman participating in the investigation, we strongly disagree with his testimony.

 

"There have been many expert witnesses from the Coast Guard, ABS, Tote, past crew members and other industry experts who have already testified under oath and their testimony contradicts Mr. Hearman's opinions.

 

"Tote remains committed to supporting the families and cooperating with the investigation process.”

The former bosun for El Faro, Evan Bradley, also testified Tuesday. He characterized El Faro as an old but operable ship. He pointed to issues with closing some scuttles, but said that after “shaking” at least one of them he could lock it in place.

Capt. Michael Davidson reported a scuttle had opened on the final voyage.

Bradley offered the board advice on improving the Coast Guard Alternate Compliance Program saying they should be more frequent and more thorough.

Hearing will reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday.


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