The U.S. Coast Guard begins hearings on Tuesday to investigate whether misconduct or negligence were factors in the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro during a hurricane last fall, an accident that left the vessel's 33 crew members dead.
The 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro went down off the Bahamas on Oct. 1 while on a cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico. It was the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation will first trace the history of the ship by examining its inspection reports, crew qualifications and past operations.
Officials from Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, the ship's owner, and former El Faro crew members are expected to testify during the initial 10-day hearing in Jacksonville, Florida.
A second hearing session, which has not been scheduled, will focus on the ship's final voyage, including cargo loading, weather conditions and navigation, the Coast Guard said.
The investigation board will look for factors that led to the disaster; evidence of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law by licensed or certified individuals; and whether the Coast Guard or other government employees contributed to the accident, according to the agency.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which will participate in the hearings, said last week that it would try again in April to recover the ship's voyage data recorder from the wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Relatives of crew members killed when El Faro sank have sued Tote, saying the ship was not seaworthy and should have avoided the hurricane.
Tote has blamed the accident on a loss of power due to unknown causes and has invoked a 19th-century maritime law that would limit its financial liability.
Reporting by Barbara Liston