Staff Didn't Perceive Danger in El Faro's Distress Call


Published Feb 13, 2017 9:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The final round of Coast Guard hearings into the loss of the con/ro El Faro resumed Monday with testimony from shoreside operations managers at TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the vessel's operator. The most moving exchange came during questioning of Capt. John Lawrence, the designated person ashore, regarding his final conversation with the El Faro’s master.

Records show that when the situation aboard the vessel began to deteriorate, El Faro captain Michael Davidson attempted to contact Lawrence by calling his cell phone. Davidson could not get through, so he left a voicemail and tried to reach a backup contact through TOTE's emergency call center instead. Unfortunately the center was slow to handle Davidson's urgent distress call: an operator put him on hold four times and asked him to spell out the name of his vessel, despite his pleas to talk with a qualified member of the operations staff. (Delays at the call center were a known problem: TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s director of operations, Lee Peterson, said Monday that it was something that the firm was "working on a lot . . . they weren't reacting as quickly as we would have liked.")

After several minutes, the call center eventually connected Davidson with Lawrence. Lawrence testified that it didn't sound like the situation was especially dire when they spoke: Davidson and his second mate were "extremely calm and professional" during the call, Lawrence said, and he did not initially believe that the incident was that serious. "Reading the transcript obviously it's a lot more serious than it first came across to me,” he said.

The crew were attempting to pump out Hold Three and to restore lube oil pressure to the main turbines at the time of the call. While Davidson told Lawrence that they were "not making ground" with the pumping, Lawrence was still not alarmed. "I felt that once they got the list out of the ship and got the engines back going I'd be talking to them in a little while," he said. Sadly he was mistaken, and the vessel sank about twenty minutes after the call.

Confusion over the fate of the El Yunque

Previous testimony from the Coast Guard's chief traveling inspector showed that the El Faro's sister ship, the El Yunque, was decommissioned after the USCG found severe corrosion in her ventilation trunks. In questioning on Monday, the Board sought to determine whether the wastage was a causal factor in the decision to sell the vessel for demolition. Peterson testified Monday that scrapping her was a "commercial decision" based on a change in TOTE's business needs, not because of the corrosion identified by the Coast Guard.

"My understanding is that it was a commercial decision and was based on the conversion of the Orca class vessels. Originally the Orca class was going to be converted to run on natural gas [but] the manufacturer of the engines came back and said that we could not do that. Replacement of the engines required us to go to a foreign shipyard, which was a lengthy process. We needed a ship to fill in," Peterson said. "Subsequently, the manufacturer . . . said that we could convert the engines that we had in place, so that negated our need to use the El Yunque on the Alaska service." However, after a break, a lawyer for TOTE said that Peterson's explanation regarding the "Orcas" was "not correct." He did not provide additional details.