NTSB finds fault in El Faro's captain and TOTE but says crew should've been ‘more assertive'

WASHINGTON, D.C. — EL FARO: Two years of investigations, photos, video 
PHOTOS: Crew members of the El Faro 

The National Transportation Safety Board faults the captain’s actions and poor safety oversight by TOTE as reasons why El Faro sank killing all 33 people on board.

That was the bottom line coming out of Tuesday’s meeting in Washington D.C.

The NTSB says its confident changes will now be made to make the shipping industry safer. Meanwhile families of those lost, many of whom were at the meeting, said they hope the deaths of their loved ones weren't in vain.

MORE: NTSB: El Faro might have survived had watertight integrities maintained

The sinking of El Faro is the deadliest maritime disaster involving a U.S.-flagged ship in 30 years.

The families left behind have now become powerful advocates for safety at sea.

“That’s why I’m so heavily involved coming back and forth talking with the Coast Guard NTSB and whoever else I need to talk to that this cannot happen again,” said Rochelle Hamm, wife of a crew member.

The last two years have been anything but easy for families.

“Taking it one day at a time, faking it one day at a time, going to therapy once a week,” said Claudia Shultz, wife of crew member.

In El Faro’s final moments, the NTSB determined there was flooding in the cargo hold “undetected open watertight scuttle and damaged seawater piping”.

The first factor listed under probable cause is Captain Michael Davidson’s actions, calling them “insufficient” to avoid Hurricane Joaquin.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the crew should’ve been more assertive in communicating their concerns to the captain. The statement upset some families who abruptly left the room.

Shultz, whose husband was the chief mate, called the comment “hurtful”.

“For him to say the officers wasn’t aggressive enough trying to get the captain’s attention that was ridiculous. I mean three phone calls when the captain knows there’s a storm,” said Shultz.

NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr disagreed with Sumwalt saying she doesn’t believe there was more the crew could’ve done detailing how officers called the captain at least three times in the middle of the night.

“One is enough in the middle of the night, three should’ve been plenty for him to be up there,” said Shultz.

Sumwalt said it’s not about placing blame.

“We don’t point fingers or lay blame we just call the facts the way that they are,” said Sumwalt.

The NTSB issued a total of 53 recommendations. (Here's the full list the recommendations we can link: https://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/Documents/2017-DCA16MM001-BMG-Abstract.pdf)

Investigators found TOTE’s poor safety oversight led to the tragedy and issued 10 recommendations to the company.

It issued 29 recommendations to the US Coast Guard, two to the Federal Communications Commission, one to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine to the International Association of Classification Societies, one to the American Bureau of Shipping, and one to Furuno Electric Company.

The investigation may be over but the fight to make the maritime industry safer is only just beginning. Glen Jackson, who lost his brother on El Faro, said he wants to see actions.

VIDEO: NTSB: The investigation of the sinking U.S. cargo vessel El Faro

“That congress has the will to enact these as law. Words and recommendations is fine but actions speak louder than words,” said Jackson.

The attorney for Captain Davidson’s widow, Bill Bennett, was present at Tuesday’s meeting but he didn’t speak publicly.

Through a source, Action News Jax has obtained Bennett’s submission to the commandant of the Coast Guard following the release of the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation report. Bennett strongly opposed parts of the MBI’s report saying it failed to include details about sworn testimony that spoke to the captain’s professionalism and safety culture.

Bennett said El Faro was not lost because of a single event but rather because of a multitude of events including water entering the deck through a scuttle that was inadvertently left open.

According to the letter, Bennett said the scuttle was left open after the chief mate and Capt. Davidson ordered the decks secured for heavy weather.

Bennett also pointed to some outdated weather information received on the ship due to an anomaly in the weather program.

The MBI report and the NTSB’s report are independent of each other but NTSB investigators participated in three two-week sessions held by the MBI in Jacksonville.

TOTE’s top leaders were also at Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak publicly. Instead a spokesperson sent Action News Jax this statement:

“We fully recognize the enormous investment required of the United States Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the tragic loss of the El Faro. TOTE has fully supported both efforts from the beginning. We are eager to review the Coast Guard and NTSB final reports.

The investigation was complex. Assessing the large quantity of records and extensive testimony was a daunting task for these investigative teams. We appreciate the time and effort both the Coast Guard and NTSB investigators expended in their efforts.

The TOTE organization will carefully study the final Coast Guard and NTSB reports of investigation once they are formally issued. We as a company intend to learn everything possible from this accident and the resulting investigations to prevent anything similar from occurring in the future. We will also assist both investigative bodies in communicating lessons learned from the accident to the broader maritime industry.

TOTE also remains focused, as we have from the start, on caring for the families of those we lost and working daily ashore and at sea to safeguard the lives of mariners. Safety has always been a central focus of our company and will remain so in the future.”

The American Bureau of Shipping sent Action News Jax the following statement after the meeting:

“ABS has worked closely with the NTSB throughout the El Faro investigation which has had a primary focus into the cause of the tragic loss of the El Faro and her crew as well as the safety issues aboard the vessel. While ABS has not yet had the opportunity to review all the NTSB recommendations, ABS supports all recommendations that effectively enhance safety and will continue working with the U.S. Coast Guard on improvements in the Alternate Compliance Program (ACP).”