• Uncertainty lingers around whether device on El Faro's life rafts was expired

    By: Lorena Inclan, Action News Jax


    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As the hearings into the October 2015 sinking of cargo ship El Faro enter day five in the third round of hearings, we are learning the vessel’s chief mate had requested a device for its lift rafts.

    During the questioning of El Faro’s former second mate, Alejandro Berrios, Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation member Keith Fawcett brought up an email from one of the lost crew members.

    The email was sent by Chief Mate Steven Schultz to Port Engineer Tim Neeson on Sept. 29, 2015, at 9:52 a.m., two days before the sinking.

    “’Hello Tim, just following up. As far as I know we have not received the hydrostatic release still needed. Best regards, Steve Schultz Chief Mate,'” Fawcett read aloud. “Do you know if there was a hydrostatic release the ship was looking for?”

    “I didn’t know,” said Berrios.

    A hydrostatic release is a device that releases the life raft. According to Fawcett, the safety inspection sheet shows the releases were going to expire in September.

    “Would that in fact mean that the hydrostatic release would have been expired?” asked Fawcett.

    “To the best of my knowledge, when we get new life rafts on board, we replace the hydrostatic release. So the only thing that this tells me is that maybe the sheet wasn’t updated,” said Berrios.

    Berrios said that when he sailed on El Faro as the second mate, he saw the new life rafts in place under a “cradle.”

    “We always had practiced changing the hydrostatic release on the raft as you replace the raft,” said Berrios.

    The board also questioned Berrios about proper rest hours and regulations surrounding the amount of rest mariners need to get.

    Despite previous concerns about crew fatigue, Berrios said that Capt. Michael Davidson, who was aboard the final voyage, was strict when it came to making sure his crew got rest.

    Berrios said Davidson would often offer to take over a watch if a crew member felt tired.

    The board also wanted to know the procedures for sending a distress message from the ship and whether the equipment is tested.

    Berrios said they often send test messages.

    Board member Cmdr. Matt Denning said the Coast Guard received a distress alert from El Faro but not a distress message. In a distress message, the user is able to type in more information.

    Denning asked Berrios if there were any concerns with the equipment.

    “To the best of my knowledge, perhaps one didn’t go across the satellite to the land station. I wouldn’t think that the equipment wasn’t working,” said Berrios.

    Lou O’Donnell, the assistant chief surveyor for the American Bureau of Shipping, took the stand after Berrios.

    O’Donnell, who has testified at a previous Marine Board of Investigation hearing, returned for more extensive questioning.

    O’Donnell oversees the work of a team of vessel surveyors who are tasked with ensuring ships are in compliance. Under the Alternate Compliance Program, which El Faro was enrolled in, ABS surveyors perform surveys on behalf of the Coast Guard.

    ABS has received some criticism from a previous witness about reluctance on the part of surveyors.

    “I have a hard time believing our surveyors are reluctant to issue a condition of class,” said O’Donnell. “I see it in my work day to day where we do that, we would issue a condition of class on something that’s not rectified.”

    The communication between ABS and the Coast Guard has also been criticized but O’Donnell said he’s seen that improve over time.

    “Since my tenure in the last almost three years, a very good relationship with the local Coast Guard. They’re on a first-name basis in a lot of areas,” said O’Donnell.

    The hearing will reconvene on Monday at 9 a.m. with testimony from TOTE executives.

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