El Faro Captain's Pleas for Help Played at Hearing

By Joseph R. Fonseca
Sunday, February 21, 2016
(Photo: NTSB)

The captain of the doomed El Faro warned that the "clock was ticking" as his cargo ship took on water in an Atlantic hurricane that would eventually sink the vessel, a U.S. Coast Guard panel heard on Saturday.

Captain Michael Davidson pleaded for help as his ship, operated by Tote Services, sailed into the path of Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas, according to a recording of his final calls played at the hearing.

He told an on-shore call center of a "maritime emergency," saying water breached the hull, entering three holds.

Soon afterwards, contact with the ship was broken, and Davidson and 32 others were lost at sea. The sinking ranks as the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged cargo ship in more than three decades.

Recordings of the calls, made last October, were posted on the website of WOKV, a Jacksonville radio station.

The U.S. Coast Guard began hearings this week to investigate the sinking. Executives of Tote Services have testified that ship captains have full responsibility for deciding when it is safe to sail and on setting the route.

Tote officials said it was Davidson's call to depart Jacksonville with a storm brewing in the Atlantic, and said they were not closely monitoring the El Faro's cargo run to Puerto Rico as a tropical storm strengthened into Joaquin.

On the phone call to shore, Davidson sounds frustrated with an operator who asked him to spell the name of the boat, telling her "the clock is ticking."

In a voicemail to Tote's "designated person ashore" John Lawrence, Davidson said that he had had a "navigational incident" and a "pretty good list," referring the water in the holds, and that while the crew was safe he needed to talk to Lawrence.

Lawrence said that he had called Davidson back quickly, and the veteran Maine mariner sounded calm, according to WOKV. Lawrence then called the Coast Guard.

Family members of dead crew members have sued Tote in federal court.

After the 790-foot (241-meter) vessel was lost, the company bought a subscription for a bad-weather routing system for its ships, Tote President Philip Greene, testified this week.

The Coast Guard's hearings continue through next Thursday.

The investigation could result in civil charges. If evidence of criminal activity is found, the Coast Guard will turn it over to the Justice Department.

(Editing by Frank McGurty and W Simon)

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