In the first detailed public disclosure of a factor that likely contributed to the loss of the cargo ship El Faro, a federal agency on Thursday announced safety recommendations aimed at improving weather forecasts and their delivery to mariners.
In making the announcement, the National Transportation Safety Board said, “The recommendations address, in the interest of mariner safety, the development of tropical cyclone information and its availability to mariners. The recommendations derive primarily from factual information gathered during the NTSB’s ongoing investigation into the sinking of cargo vessel El Faro on October 1, 2015.”
All 33 aboard were lost when the Jacksonville-based El Faro went down in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. Many of the crew members were from the Jacksonville area. Officials with Tote, whose subsidiaries owned and operated the El Faro, could not be reached late Thursday for comment on the NTSB announcement.
The agency said that, “After noting how Hurricane Joaquin and several other major storms had significantly deviated from their forecasts, investigators determined a new emphasis on improving tropical cyclone forecasting was warranted.”
The El Faro sinking has been the subject of extensive reviews by both the NTSB and the U.S. Coast Guard, which held three Marine Board of Investigation hearings in Jacksonville, each of which lasted two weeks. The boards heard testimony about a wide range of topics, including weather forecasts, the ship’s condition, modifications to it, inspections of it, cargo loading, and the actions of the captain and crew.
The lead Coast Guard investigator has steadfastly avoided singling out the causes of the tragedy, saying in September that he and his team were “exploring several factors that seemed to combine together” that led to the loss of the ship on its regular route between Jacksonville and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Capt. Jason Neubauer, chairman of the board appointed by the Coast Guard commandant to investigate the sinking, said then that, “I don’t feel there is one certain factor that stands out more than the others.”
The NTSB had been quiet about its own investigation for more than six months, since the December announcement that it had added to its investigation docket transcripts of audio recordings recovered from the wreck, which lies 15,000 feet deep.
On Thursday, it cautioned, “The NTSB has yet to determine the probable cause of, or contributing factors in, El Faro’s sinking.” But then it added, “Nevertheless, based on the meteorological facts gathered thus far, plus discussions with the NWS and the Coast Guard, the NTSB makes ten recommendations in this report.”
The National Weather Service is to receive seven recommendations, the NTSB said. Two will go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and one will go to the Coast Guard.
The NTSB said that in the El Faro investigation, “The factual data revealed that critical tropical cyclone information issued by the NWS is not always available to mariners via well-established broadcast methods. The data also suggest that modifying the way the NWS develops certain tropical cyclone forecasts and advisories could help mariners at sea better understand and respond to tropical cyclones. Further, factual data on the official forecasts for Hurricane Joaquin and other recent tropical cyclones suggest that a new emphasis on improving hurricane forecasts is warranted.”
The NTSB noted Thursday that it “typically releases safety recommendations at the conclusion of an investigation,” but its acting chairman, Robert L. Sumwalt, said, “We are getting these recommendations out as the hurricane season begins so that the work on these safety improvements can start immediately.”
The NTSB’s Safety Recommendation Report can be found at http://bit.ly/2tqsCJD.
The agency said, “The El Faro investigation is expected to be completed later this year when investigators will present their findings to NTSB Members who will determine the accident’s probable cause and contributing factors in a public meeting in Washington, D.C.”
Clay Zeigler: (904) 359-4513