Boilers may not have caused loss of propulsion on El Faro

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A boiler failure might not have been the reason El Faro lost propulsion before sinking with 33 on board during Hurricane Joaquin, that’s according to its former chief engineer.

For the first time since the sinking we are seeing the inside of El Faro’s engine room after TOTE attorneys entered several photos into evidence during Tuesday’s hearing.

The photos show heavy machinery, pipes and even the control panel.

It’s inside the engine room that the engineers aboard El Faro’s final voyage attempted to get the propulsion back up and running before the ship went down.

Former chief engineer of the vessel James Robinson was the first to testify Tuesday. He was asked by the Marine Board of Investigation what Capt. Michael Davidson meant when he said “we've lost the main propulsion unit” in his phone call to the emergency call center.

“If he was talking [about] the propulsion, that would be the reduction gear and the turbines,” said Robinson.

According to Robinson, he’s never seen a ship lose its turbines and is unsure if this is what actually happened in the accident voyage.

“You lose a turbine you're done, you're not going to get propulsion back,” said Robinson. “If you lose propulsion because of lube oil you have two lube oil pumps, you get one reestablished [and] find out what happened. There are so many different avenues.”

Robinson said the ship’s boilers needed maintenance. Tuesday he read from an email he sent on July 29, 2015 to TOTE Services Inc. executives about some of those repairs.

“Good afternoon, as you're aware the port boiler front wall needs to be addressed at the shipyard. We inspected and cleaned the port boiler on 7/11/15 and the brick work is getting worse from the wall to wall tubes out even further,” Robinson read aloud. “There is extensive work that needs to be completed inside the furnace and both boilers.”

Robinson said both boilers needed maintenance but said the port side boiler was in worse condition than the starboard side boiler.

Port side and starboard side are nautical terms that refer to either the left or right side of the vessel, respectively.

According to Robinson, none of the repairs needed were urgent.

“Nothing I ever deferred was nothing major anyway. I mean as far as any boiler work we were scheduled to go into a ship yard and that was just standard,” said Robinson. “Any major issue was addressed when it was needed to be addressed.”

Robinson said their contract states they work 12 hour shifts and said he never heard of anyone having an issue with work-rest hour requirements.

El Faro’s former bosun, James Walker, also testified the ship and its sisters were old and had rust but said that’s typical for older vessels. His job was to make sure that preventative maintenance was addressed. Walker also acted as the union representative aboard El Faro.

Walker served aboard El Faro for a little more than seven months and got off the vessel days before it left on its final voyage.

According to Walker, he would receive a five page list of preventative maintenance every month and had 30 days to complete the work on the list. Some of the work on the list included things like painting and lubricating winches.

He also testified about the safety culture aboard El Faro.

“If there's something that is unsafe it's brought up and it's addressed immediately. It has to be,” said Walker.

One of walker’s jobs was to secure the scuttles, which are small openings or hatches, before leaving the dock.

According to one of Davidson’s final phone calls to shore, one of the scuttles on deck 2 blew open during the storm causing water to get into hold #3 but it’s still unclear how or why the scuttled opened.

Walker was also asked if anyone complained about Davidson’s leadership style.

“We live together 24/7 people are going to complain about this or going to complain about that. I don't believe there were any safety issues about the captain,” said Walker.

Wednesday we are expected to hear from the Coast Guard member who was the first to speak with TOTE Services Inc. executives on the day of the sinking.

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