The former chief engineer of a container ship that sank in a hurricane killing 33 sailors said Wednesday that evidence from the ship’s “black box” shows a crew working hard to keep it afloat.
Mark Gay, who served aboard the El Faro years before its final journey, became emotional at times during testimony before a U.S. Coast Guard investigative board in Jacksonville as he talked about the ship’s lost crew.
The El Faro sank on Oct. 1, 2015, after losing propulsion in Hurricane Joaquin while traveling between Jacksonville and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Search crews recovered the ship’s voyage data recorder last summer, which captured audio of the conversations on the ship’s bridge as its engines stopped and water flooded a cargo hold.
Transcripts show that Capt. Michael Davidson said he’d lost the plant, which Gay said meant the propulsion system, about an hour before he’s heard calling crew members to abandon ship.
At the same time as he lost the plant, Davidson tells his fellow crew members on the bridge that the engineering crew was reporting that water was pouring through ventilation ducts down below.
For Gay, who worked in the same engine room years earlier, indications from the transcripts show that everyone was still doing their jobs even as a Category 3 hurricane was battering the ship with 30-foot waves and high winds. He said the water entering the room through the ducts wouldn’t have deterred their efforts.
“You have a lot of good people doing whatever needed to be done to get this thing going and get out of harm’s way,” he said. “I’ve been in conditions where things go wrong in a hurry and you have to make decisions fast. To me, they were doing everything they could to hold on.”
At about 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, Davidson rang the ship’s general alarm, preparing the crew to abandon ship.
“Tell em we’re goin’ in,” he says as the alarm bell rang, according to the transcript.
Moments later he yells out that the bow of the ship is down.
“Throw all your rafts in the water,” Davidson said as the ship slipped further into the water. `”tay together!”
Davidson was heard trying to soothe the frayed nerves of a frightened crew member before the audio cuts off.
Search crews found the El Faro’s wreckage near the Bahamas in 15,000 feet of water, but no bodies were ever recovered.
Since the loss of the vessel, the Coast Guard and NTSB have been investigating the seaworthiness of the 40-year-old ship. The run to Puerto Rico in 2015 was to be the last by El Faro and its nearly identical sister ship El Yunque. Since the sinking, the El Yunque was scrapped after inspections found it to be too damaged for a planned retrofit, testimony revealed.
Glen Jackson, whose brother Jack Jackson died on board, has attended all of the Coast Guard hearings. His family is one of the few of the 33 El Faro crew members who haven’t settled legal claims against the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime, Inc.
“It’s ruined my life. My brother and I were tight,” he said during a hearing break.
Jackson said he hopes the investigation will lead to safer work for the nation’s mariners.
“Ninety percent of everything we buy, eat and wear comes by ship. And there are a whole lot of American men and women out there at sea, and they deserve to have a safe working environment.”
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