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El Faro Investigators Focus Again on Ship-Inspection Program

Charles Baird, former second mate of the El Faro, left, and Mike Kucharski with the National Transportation Safety Board discuss route options available to the El during a hearing, Feb. 18, 2016. (Bob Self /The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Charles Baird, former second mate of the El Faro, left, and Mike Kucharski with the National Transportation Safety Board discuss route options available to the El during a hearing, Feb. 18, 2016. (Bob Self /The Florida Times-Union via AP)

U.S. Coast Guard investigators returned Tuesday to questioning a program in which a third party monitors the conditions of ships, including the El Faro before it sank in October 2015 during a hurricane.

Coast Guard Capt. David Flaherty, chief of traveling inspectors at Coast Guard headquarters who oversees the Alternate Compliance Program, said there was an investigation after discrepancies were discovered in the program.

Flaherty said his office found instances in which vessel operators and the class societies, the third parties including the American Bureau of Shipping that survey commercial ships, did not inform the Coast Guard of serious issues with ships as required.

The Coast Guard has delegated authority to the ABS and other class societies inspections of commercial vessels to ensure they meet safety codes. The Coast Guard does conduct some investigations itself. Some Coast Guard investigators have questioned the program, including potential conflicts of interest since ship operators pay the class societies to survey the vessels. They question if the inspections are impartial.

The 40-year-old El Faro, whose sinking during Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015, killed all 33 on board, was enrolled in the program.

Flaherty testified Tuesday before a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation looking into the El Faro sinking. The board is conducting its third two-week hearing in Jacksonville.

The investigators have repeatedly questioned the ACP program, the oversight by the Coast Guard, and the relationship between vessel operators and surveyors.

The American Bureau of Shipping, a multibillion-dollar nonprofit that sets industry standards for construction and maintenance of commercial vessels, is one of the parties of interest in the Coast Guard hearing with attorneys there to represent the firm.

Flaherty, when asked by an ABS attorney, agreed the purpose of the ACP program is to reduce redundancy in inspections while maintaining safety.

The Coast Guard placed the El Faro on a list of at-risk vessels, but the ship capsized and sank before the list was published. An attorney for ABS previously pointed out the El Faro had no major structural or mechanical weaknesses.

Flaherty said the office has worked to identify potentially problematic vessels since the El Faro tragedy. Inspectors developed a list of 18 at-risk vessels.

Other testimony Tuesday indicated possible issues with maintenance by El Faro owner Tote Services Inc. and reporting by the classification society.

Inspectors found "extensive wastage" and rust in an exhaust or ventilation duct in El Faro sister ship El Yunque that hadn't been addressed in years, Flaherty said. He said this created a potential for downward flooding. There was paint over years of rust, he said. While the Coast Guard was told by the classification society the other ventilation ducts were sufficient, Flaherty said it was later learned there was wastage in the other ducts, too.

Tote intended to move the El Yunque to an Alaskan route, but instead it was scrapped, he said.

An attorney for Tote pushed back about maintenance issues, citing previous testimony from an inspector about Tote being forthcoming and maintaining its vessels. He also pointed to Coast Guard inspections deeming the El Faro fit for service.

The Coast Guard reviewed Tote Services after the El Faro incident and found five nonconformities and four observations while reviewing documents, Flaherty said. Tote later made improvements to satisfy requirements.

During earlier testimony Tuesday, Cmdr. Michael Crider of U.S. Coast Guard central command addressed weather alerts sent out by the Coast Guard. When pushed by an attorney for the family of El Faro captain Michael Davidson, Crider said he was not certain, but there was a definite possibility that some high-frequency weather messages were not sent on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in the region where the El Faro was travelling between Jacksonville and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Coast Guard investigators also questioned Jaideep Sirkar, chief of the naval architecture division at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, but he did not address issues specific to the El Faro.

The two-week hearing continues Wednesday at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, 1000 Water St.

The public can attend the hearing, which can also be viewed on a live stream at: livestream.com/USCGInvestigations.