El Faro safety probed in final U.S. hearing on sinking

File Photo: The stern of the El Faro is shown on the ocean floor taken from an underwater video camera on November 1, 2015. Courtesy National Transportation Safety Board/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo (Reuters)

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The U.S. investigation into the deadly sinking of a cargo ship during a 2015 hurricane on Monday examined conditions aboard the El Faro, including preliminary findings that it was operating with a minimal stability margin on its final voyage.

Still, the El Faro met applicable requirements for "intact and damage stability" on its final voyage, when all 33 crew on board died, according to a U.S. Coast Guard preliminary report. It would not have met standards for a ship built today, the report summary said.

Jeff Stettler, a naval architect, presented the findings to the Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation, convened for the most serious accidents.

His report came on the first day of two weeks of planned testimony in Jacksonville, Florida as the panel conducts its final round of public hearings.

The 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro sank during a hurricane on Oct. 1, 2015, two days after leaving Jacksonville, Florida on a cargo run to Puerto Rico in the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.

Earlier in the day, investigators questioned Captain Raymond Thompson, former chief mate on the El Faro, asking crew fatigue, cargo securing and an anemometer measuring wind speed.

Authorities now have key information about the ship's final hours from its voyage data recorder that was not recovered when the panel held two rounds of hearings last year.

Transcripts from the recordings showed Captain Michael Davidson's uncertainty about the storm's location. The veteran mariner from Maine told his chief mate he was receiving conflicting reports hours before the alarm sounded to abandon ship.

Ultimately, the Coast Guard panel expects to issue a report that could make recommendations to prevent another disaster, though the agency has no timeline for its release. The National Transportation Safety Board is also participating in the hearings.

Monday's testimony touched on the availability of life-saving equipment. Discussion of lifeboats is scheduled for next week.

During earlier hearings, executives of Tote Services, which managed the El Faro, called the disaster a tragic accident.

The company has settled financially with 28 families, Tote said in a statement, declining details.

"Since the loss of the El Faro, we have focused every effort on supporting the families of those on board. An important part of this support has entailed reaching fair and swift legal settlements for those who may choose them," Tote said in a statement last week.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)