[Updated] Adm. Zukunft: El Faro Tragedy is a "Call to Action"

File image courtesy TOTE

By The Maritime Executive 12-22-2017 01:46:19

The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft, has approved the Marine Board of Investigation's report on the sinking of the El Faro, which went down with the loss of all hands on October 1, 2015.

Like the MBI, Zukunft concluded that the decisions of the El Faro’s master were the "most prominent" contributing factor to the casualty. Adequate information was available on the risks posed by the storm; safe, sheltered alternate routes were open to the southwest; and the captain's junior officers warned him multiple times about the growing threat of sailing into the hurricane. He did not alter course to avoid the storm. 

Adm. Zukunft also cited "numerous failures on the part of TOTE Services, Inc. (TSI) to properly fulfill its obligations under the International Safety Management (ISM) Code." These shortcomings allegedly included a failure to conduct proper lifeboat drills; a failure to provide basic safety training to supernumeraries aboard the El Faro; the poor material condition of El Faro's sister ship El Yunque, which was scrapped after a Coast Guard inspection found significant corrosion; and a failure to provide shoreside support to the master.

In particular, Zukunft asserted that TSI deliberately stopped providing its captains with heavy weather voyage planning and weather routing before the accident voyage. "Understanding that the company routinely provided liner service in an area prone to hurricanes during hurricane season, the decision to abandon such a crucial support system is irresponsible and inexcusable," he wrote.

He concurred with the MBI's recommendation to refer a set of lesser charges to the appropriate authorities for potential enforcement action. "The investigation has determined that there is evidence that TSI may have committed multiple violations of law or regulation," he wrote. These alleged infractions include:

- Failure to comply with work-rest requirements for El Faro crew members on multiple dates prior to the accident voyage.
- Failure to comply with procedures for training the members of the El Faro's riding gang
- Failure to notify the Coast Guard or ABS of repairs to primary lifesaving appliances that were conducted just prior to El Faro's departure from Jacksonville on the accident voyage
- Failure to notify the Coast Guard or ABS of repairs to El Faro’s main propulsion boiler superheating piping on August 24, 2015.

“This casualty is a call to action”

Zukunft also called on the American Bureau of Shipping to improve its classification and inspection services, which cover over 90 percent of the U.S. deep draft fleet. The MBI and the National Transportaiton Safety Board noted that Coast Guard inspectors found multiple instances in which a class society failed to find or resolve safety and seaworthiness deficiencies on other U.S.-flagged vessels. "This casualty is a call to action. ABS can and must do better," Zukunft wrote. [Update: In a statement Friday, ABS emphasized that no survey deficiencies were noted on the El Faro.]

Zukunft’s critique echoed Coast Guard Capt. Domenic Calicchio's 1984 report on the Marine Electric disaster, the last American marine casualty of similar magnitude. The Coast Guard commandant at the time, Adm. J.S. Gracey, rejected one of Calicchio's most controversial recommendations – that the U.S. government should conduct all inspections related to safety regulations itself. Capt. Calicchio’s proposal would be even less practical now than it was in 1984, Adm. Zukunft wrote, because "the Coast Guard relies far more heavily on third parties today than at the time of the Marine Electric casualty." 

Like Adm. Gracey, Adm. Zukunft called for a reform of the Coast Guard's compliance monitoring for third party organizations. This reform could include a new Third Party Oversight Office that would be tasked with monitoring class society performance. "The Coast Guard must, and will, provide the final safety net with sustainable policy, oversight, and accountability," he wrote. 

[Update: ABS supports all efforts to enhance safety through effective surveys and inspections and will continue working with the U.S. Coast Guard on improvements in the Alternate Compliance Program,” the class society said in a statement Friday.]

ISM Code as a tool for change

In addition, the Coast Guard will formulate flag state guidance for Safety Management Systems to incorporate several of the MBI’s recommendations. The guidance will lay out best practices for SMS content on heavy weather, damage control, and the closure of watertight and weathertight openings, along with provisions for Coast Guard oversight. Some older vessels are not subject to modern IMO rules that would cover these MBI recommendations – but by issuing guidance on SMS content, Zukunft wrote, the Coast Guard has an "expeditious means" of disseminating the lessons learned from El Faro.

Adm. Zukunft’s full comments are available here; coverage of the MBI report is available here, and coverage of the NTSB report may be found here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.