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Coast Guard Civil Penalties Possible for Operator of Sunken SS El Faro

An undated video frame grab showing the stern of the of the sunken freighter El Faro on the seafloor, 15,000-feet deep near the Bahamas. The image was taken by Cable Underwater Recovery Vehicle (CURV) aboard the Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172). US Navy image.

The operator of the SS El Faro container ship that sank during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 now faces the prospect of a U.S. Coast Guard-initiated civil penalty investigation, according to a Final Action Memo released by the Coast Guard today.

All 33 crewmembers aboard died in the incident, which occurred while El Faro was steaming from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico. A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation report released in September lists dozens of recommendations and states the sinking “ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history, and resulted in the highest death toll from a U.S. commercial vessel sinking in almost 40 years.”

El Faro was owned by TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and the crew was operated by TOTE Services. Both are Jacksonville-based subsidiaries of TOTE Inc., headquartered in Princeton, N.J. The ship departed Jacksonville while Tropical Storm Joaquin was a few hundred miles away, but the storm quickly turned into a category 3 hurricane and the ship sank on Oct. 1. In November 2015, El Faro was discovered by a salvage team embarked on the Military Sealift Command ship USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). The wreckage sits more than 15,000 feet below the sea surface, in a spot northeast of Acklins and Crooked Island, Bahamas.

In a Final Action Memo signed by Zukunft and released today, the Coast Guard states, “the investigation has determined that there is evidence that TSI may have committed multiple violations of law or regulation.”

In his memo, Zukunft, approves the findings of fact, analysis, and conclusions detailed in the Marine Board of Investigation’s report, essentially marking it as the official Coast Guard position on the cause of the El Faro sinking. The report includes more than 30 recommendations for safety or legislative changes, most of which Zukunft concurs with and notes his intent to implement.

Zukunft designated the Officer in Charge of Marine Inspections in Jacksonville to start the civil penalties investigation and take any appropriate enforcement actions against TOTE.

An undated video frame grab showing a close up view of the sunken freighter El Faro on the seafloor, 15,000-feet deep near the Bahamas. The image was taken by Cable Underwater Recovery Vehicle (CURV) aboard the Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172).

Meanwhile, in a separate determination earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the sinking was caused by a variety of factors, including poor seamanship, outdated equipment, safety issues, and poor corporate oversight.

Tote Services Inc. would not comment on the legal process but did issue a company statement about the investigation’s safety recommendations.

“There are numerous safety recommendations made by the Coast Guard for the maritime industry and regulators to consider. Although these are largely outside TOTE’s purview, we support changes that enhance safety for seafarers. Safety has always been a central focus of our company and will remain so in the future. We commit to assisting the U.S. Coast Guard and the NTSB in sharing the lessons learned from this accident,” according to the company statement.

Rear Adm. John Nadeau, the assistant commandant for prevention policy, will lead the commandant’s efforts to follow up on the recommendations, most of them safety-related.

“The tragic story of the El Faro points to the need for a strong and enduring commitment from all elements of the safety framework: vessel owner, Authorized Class Society, and the Coast Guard,” reads a statement released by Nadeau.
“As the lead agency of the U.S. Flag Administration, the Coast Guard is ultimately responsible to monitor the performance of third party organizations entrusted with the safety of U.S. ships. The Coast Guard takes the implementation of the safety recommendations in the Commandant’s Final Action Memo very seriously and is committed to providing sustainable policy, oversight, and accountability both internally and externally.”

 

The following is the full statement from TOTE, released on Dec. 21, 2017: 

We recognize the enormous investment of time and resources by the United States Coast Guard, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, to investigate the tragic loss of the El Faro and her crew. We thank them for their efforts. TOTE fully supported the investigative work of both agencies from the start of those investigations.

The report identifies that there was no single cause of this accident. Although the report finds that responsibility for the accident is shared among a number of parties, the El Faro and her crew were lost on our watch. For this we will be eternally sorry. Nothing we can ever do will bring back the members of the TOTE team lost in this accident, but we will do everything possible going forward to ensure the safety of our team members who go to sea.

TOTE remains focused, as we have from the beginning, on caring for the families of those we lost and working daily ashore and at sea to safeguard the lives of mariners. We owe it to these family members, and the crew of the El Faro, to remember that the Voyage Data Recorder transcript indicated the crew continued to perform their duties under trying conditions until the vessel sank beneath them.

There are numerous safety recommendations made by the Coast Guard for the maritime industry and regulators to consider. Although these are largely outside TOTE’s purview, we support changes that enhance safety for seafarers. Safety has always been a central focus of our company and will remain so in the future. We commit to assisting the U.S. Coast Guard and the NTSB in sharing the lessons learned from this accident.