The captain of the U.S. cargo ship that sank off the Bahamas in a hurricane last fall, killing all 33 people on board, was responsible for decisions that put the vessel in the path of the storm, a shipping company executive testified on Tuesday.
Captain Michael Davidson, a veteran mariner from Maine, was at the helm of the 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro for its doomed cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico. The ship disappeared on Oct. 1 after he reported losing propulsion and taking on water.
U.S. Coast Guard hearings to investigate the accident opened with testimony from an executive with Tote Services, the ship's operator, who said final determinations about safety, when to sail and the route to take fell to Davidson.
"That's all managed on board by the captain," said Philip Morrell, vice president for commercial marine operations. "He has total responsibility for that work."
The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation is examining factors that led to the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades. It will look for evidence of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law by licensed or certified individuals, the agency said.
The board is convened only for the most serious accidents or those with considerable national significance. It last met to investigate the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
Investigators first will trace the El Faro's history during a 10-day hearing in Jacksonville, Florida. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said it found the crew had proper credentials and the ship carried the required safety, lifesaving and communications equipment.
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.
Davidson's wife, Theresa, was named a party of interest in the case. She is allowed to question witnesses but so far has declined to do.
Relatives of the dead El Faro crew members 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.
The National Transportation Safety Board will try again in April to recover the ship's voyage data recorder from the wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Von Ahn)