NTSB releases El Faro bridge audio transcript
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators have released the transcript from El Faro’s voyage data recorder documenting the ship’s final day at sea before sinking off Crooked Island in the Bahamas on Oct. 1, 2015. All 33 people on board the 791-foot ship died in the accident.
The transcript offers new insights into Capt. Michael Davidson’s decision-making, his plan to avoid Hurricane Joaquin and the mechanical issue that crippled the cargo ship. It also shows extensive discussion among crewmembers trying to identify the source of water intrusion that likely caused the ship’s list.
Federal authorities recovered the VDR in August, then spent months reviewing and recording its contents. The device recorded 11 parameters including bridge audio, vessel position and heading, speed and wind data.
The transcript shows Davidson and his chief mate first discussed the weather on Sept. 30 and agreed to a course change intended to keep them well clear of the storm as they headed from Florida to Puerto Rico. Throughout the day, crewmembers discussed the weather with increasing alarm as the vessel’s path and the hurricane’s projected track converged.
At about 0410 on the morning of the storm, Davidson returned to the bridge. About 27 minutes later, the chief mate first discussed the ship’s worsening list and engine oil levels. At 0512, the alternate chief engineer said the ship was listing like he had never seen before.
“At about 5:43 a.m. the captain takes a phone call and indicates there is a problem in the No. 3 hold of the ship and sends the chief mate to investigate,” the NTSB said in its release. “They discuss suspected flooding over UHF radio, which appears to be the first recorded conversation about a flooding condition on the ship.”
Later discussion shows the ship lost propulsion at about 0613, and despite efforts by the engineering crew to restore it, the system never came back online. The ship sent its formal distress signal after 0700. At about the same time, Davidson reported the situation to ship operator TOTE’s designated person on shore.
“The captain gave the command to sound the ship’s general alarm at about 7:27 a.m., and about two minutes later the second mate exclaimed there were containers in the water and the captain gave the command to sound the abandon-ship alarm,” the NTSB statement said. “About four minutes later the captain relayed over the UHF radio to put the life rafts in the water.”
The recording ends at about 0740 with an exchange between Davidson and another crewmember on the bridge. In these harrowing final moments, Davidson appears to be trying to help the crewman escape from the sinking vessel. Both were still on the bridge when the recording stopped.
Safety alert warns of engine cooling jacket failures
The U.S. Coast Guard is warning shipowners to check for engine cooling jacket problems after one such incident caused a bulker to run aground recently in the Columbia River.
“This casualty occurred primarily because of cracks on the cooling jacket of a two-stroke crosshead design Mitsui MAN B&W MC-C engine. The cracks caused a loss of engine cooling water that eventually resulted in the overheating of the cylinder cover,” the alert said. “This then triggered an automated slowdown of the engine and an unintended loss or reduction in the vessel’s propulsion and maneuverability.”
Investigators also identified similar issues in the past, including a 2013 grounding on the Columbia River and an incident in 2012 near Corpus Christi, Texas, where a vessel lost power and hit an oil rig.
In the past, marine safety investigators have identified problems with replacement bolts used to hold the cooling jacket in place. Fractures of the cooling jacket also have occurred through the bolt holes, the safety alert said.
MAN has issued a service letter related to this issue. The Coast Guard strongly recommends that shipowners and managers make these and other service letters available to relevant crew, regardless of the engine maker.
Engineering personnel on ships with this MAN engine and others of similar construction should review maintenance procedures related to securing the cooling jacket in place, the agency said.
Visit www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg545/alerts/1716.pdf to read the full alert, including technical details about the bolts in question and details on avoiding breakages.
Crewman rescued after leg injury aboard cargo ship
The Coast Guard rescued a crewman from a cargo ship off the Texas coast after the man was hit by a piece of machinery. The accident caused a deep laceration and may have broken the man’s leg, according to a news release.
The incident occurred at about 0430 on Dec. 9 aboard the ro-ro vehicle carrier Torino. Crew reported that the 38-year-old mariner was hit by a crank lever roughly two inches below his knee. The Coast Guard dispatched an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Houston to perform the medevac.
The helicopter met the 652-foot United Kingdom-flagged ship about two hours after the initial distress call. Authorities hoisted the man aboard and transported him about 15 miles to a Galveston airport where paramedics were waiting.
At last report, the Coast Guard said the injured man was in stable condition at a Texas hospital.
Casualty flashback: December 1962
The 640-hp tugboat Gwendoline Steers left New York City before noon on Dec. 30, 1962, for a job in Northport, some 40 miles away on Long Island’s north shore. Weather conditions rapidly deteriorated during the voyage, and the tug sank at the mouth of Huntington Bay in about 40 feet of water. All nine people aboard the tug died.
During the first five hours of the voyage, the temperature dropped from about 50 degrees to just above zero, and winds roared to 60 mph. Capt. Herbert Dickman communicated over radio with the Coast Guard, which promised to send a rescue boat if the tug requested it. An hour later, at 1730, the Coast Guard tried to hail the vessel over radio but received no response. During that time, winds were said to reach 90 mph with 10- to 12-foot waves.
Witnesses watching the tug from their shoreside homes suggested it was headed for protected waters, then appeared to turn around and head back toward Long Island Sound. At least one crewman escaped into the tug’s lifeboat before the vessel sank; his body was found in the lifeboat the next morning covered in ice.
The tugboat was never salvaged and Coast Guard investigators could not determine the cause of the sinking. Over the years there have been lingering questions about the incident, including why the sunken vessel wasn’t raised, the nature of the voyage leading up to a holiday weekend, and why only one crewmember escaped into the lifeboat.
Some people also consider the discovery of the crewmembers’ remains in “clusters” unusual. Three bodies were found within the first four days after the accident. Two more were found on a single day in April 1963, and the remaining four were found during a three-week period in May 1963.