(Reuters) - The captain of the U.S. cargo ship that sank off the Bahamas in a hurricane last fall, killing all 33 people on board, was responsible for decisions that put the vessel in the path of the storm, the company that operated the vessel said on Tuesday.
But members of a U.S. Coast Guard panel examining the sinking questioned that assessment and why the company had produced only a handful of email exchanges with the captain during the ill-fated voyage.
The 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro went down off the Bahamas on Oct. 1 while on a cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico. It was the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
Captain Michael Davidson, a veteran mariner from Maine, reported losing propulsion and taking on water before it sank.
Philip Morrell, an executive with ship operator Tote Services said the captain had “total responsibility,” including final determinations about safety, when to sail and the route.
The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation is looking for evidence of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law by licensed or certified individuals.
Panelists noted a company email sent to Davidson, which said he was authorized to change his route to avoid the storm. But Morrell responded that the captain did not need company permission to change course.
The board’s marine casualty expert Keith Fawcett questioned why the company produced relatively few emails exchanged between the captain and company during the voyage, compared to thousands exchanged during previous hurricanes. Morrell said he did not know.
The investigation board last met to investigate the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Tuesday marked the start of 10 days of hearings on El Faro. The Coast Guard said it found the crew had proper credentials and the ship carried required safety and communications equipment.
Relatives of the dead El Faro crew members have sued Tote, saying the ship was not seaworthy and should have avoided the hurricane.
Tote has blamed the accident on a loss of power due to unknown causes and has invoked a 19th-century maritime law that would limit its financial liability.
The National Transportation Safety Board will try again in April to recover the ship’s voyage data recorder from the wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando, Fla.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown