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U.S. probe into El Faro disaster concludes public hearings

By Letitia Stein

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. investigators stood in silence for 33 seconds on Friday as they concluded the public phase of a probe into the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship during a 2015 hurricane, recognizing each crew member aboard who died.

The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation, convened for the most serious accidents, heard two weeks of testimony in the last of a series of hearings on the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.

Captain Jason Neubauer, the panel's chairman, said it had collected sufficient evidence for a forthcoming analysis. Eventually, the board expects to issue a report that could makerecommendations to prevent another disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board also plans to release a report finding the probable cause of the accident.

Investigators said they were inspired by the relatives of the deceased, many attending six total weeks of testimony during the three rounds of hearings held in Jacksonville, Florida.

"It has been difficult to watch and listen as the struggle to come to terms with the tragedy continues on a daily basis," Neubauer said.

All 33 crew onboard died when the 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro sank during Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015, two days after leaving Jacksonville on a run to Puerto Rico.

The widow of El Faro captain Michael Davidson, a veteran mariner from Maine, shared a closing statement through an attorney. It noted that Davidson was shown during the hearings to be a careful professional who had refused to leave a crew member behind, giving up a chance to fight for his own survival.

"We all owe it to the El Faro 33 to learn what happened," said Tim Nolan, president of Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, the ship's owner, at the end of the hearing.

During the final round of testimony, the panel learned that the El Faro had little room for troubles on its final voyage, operating with a minimal stability margin.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)