Ex-ship captain says he was fired after airing safety fears

A cargo ship captain who worked for the company that owned the doomed freighter El Faro testified Tuesday that he was fired after reporting safety concerns about his ship.

Capt. Jack Hearn, who sailed for a Tote Services Inc. subsidiary, testified before a U.S. Coast Guard panel in Jacksonville that is investigating the 41-year-old El Faro’s sinking in a hurricane last October.

The Marine Board of Investigation is seeking information about the vessel’s stability and whether there were mistakes in weather forecasting or cargo loading before the ship’s final voyage. Key questions also remain about routing decisions made by its captain.

On and before Oct. 1, as El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson was returning to Jacksonville from Puerto Rico, he indicated to colleagues that he thought he could sail south of the storm. Instead, the ship lost propulsion and got stuck in Hurricane Joaquin, eventually going down in 15,000 feet of water. There were no survivors.

Hearn, who sailed the El Faro’s sister ship, the El Morro, said that after he raised concerns about holes in his own ship, Tote reluctantly reported them to the Coast Guard — but only after he took a trip without the needed repairs.

“The port engineer did not report (the holes) to the Coast Guard. I was disappointed,” he said. Back ashore, the holes were reported and addressed eventually, he said.

He said his relationship with the port engineers became strained after the incident.

Weeks later, Hearn said, a Tote official came onboard and asked him to resign and get help finding a new job, or be fired.

Eventually, Hearn said, he asked the company to investigate the matter. He said he was fired before entering into arbitration with Tote.

Previous testimony revealed that parts of the boilers on the 790-foot El Faro had deteriorated severely and needed to be replaced, yet Tote’s engineers believed it was still safe enough to sail. Those parts were set to be replaced in November, and the ship’s October voyage was scheduled to be its last before being replaced by a newer vessel on the Puerto Rico run.

The condition of the El Faro, along with Davidson’s access to weather information, have been themes throughout the investigative hearings.

James Franklin, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialist unit, testified Tuesday that the agency’s initial forecasts of Joaquin contained errors “much larger than normal.”

Franklin said Joaquin was initially forecast as a “relatively weak system” that would head west-northwest and dissipate in the days when the El Faro was sailing between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. Instead, Joaquin moved south-southwest and strengthened into a strong hurricane and was 536 miles off its predicted initial track.

Davidson was aware of the storm, according to emails and texts he sent colleagues. He emailed Tote officials the day before the ship sank advising that he may take a slower, safer route. He was given the OK by a Tote manager, but the ship never made it.

Tote’s attorneys at the hearing did not address Hearn’s testimony.

But William Bennett, an attorney for Davidson’s widow, read from a letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection accusing the El Morro and its crew of smuggling cocaine. It was not clear how the letter was relevant to the El Faro.

Hearn confirmed knowledge of the letter but didn’t offer further comment on the incident. The Coast Guard refused to release the letter to AP, saying it would be available after the panel’s investigation is complete.


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