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Perfect storm of overconfidence, poor training sank El Faro: U.S. authorities

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The freighter El Faro sank in 2015, killing all 33 people aboard, after an overconfident captain let the ship steam into a hurricane, while poor training and equipment also factored into the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades, a federal safety board said on Tuesday.

Preliminary findings of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) probe showed Captain Michael Davidson ignored his mates' pleas that he change course to avoid a strengthening Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas, investigators told an NTSB meeting.

Davidson was likely under the sway of "confirmation bias" when he relied on out-of-date weather information and declined to leave his quarters to change course, said Carrie Bell, who investigated human factors involved in the tragedy.

"The captain endangered El Faro and his crew" when he failed to heed his officers' requests, she told the panel. A rigid bridge heirarchy also contributed because officers were reluctant to contest his decision, the panel found.

Davidson, a veteran of Alaska shipping routes, declined to emerge from his cabin even when one mate told him of 100-mile-per-hour (160-km-per-hour) winds ahead.

"This was every day in Alaska," Bell quoted him as saying at one point, citing audio files from the vessel's data recorder.

The NTSB panel is reviewing findings and recommendations stemming from the sinking of the 790-foot (241-meter) freighter on Oct. 1, 2015.

The cargo vessel operated by Tote Maritime Puerto Rico disappeared two days after leaving Jacksonville, Florida, for Puerto Rico. The wreck site was found more than 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

Bell said the bridge crew balked at challenging Davidson, with helmsmen expressing reservations to junior officers but never to the captain, even as El Faro headed into the hurricane blinded by lashing spray.

Investigators said the crew lacked training in areas including use of cargo stability computer software and in damage assessment and flooding.

The officers also were unaware there was a six-hour gap in information provided by the Bon Voyage System weather software, they said.

The ship recorder showed that shortly before 6 a.m. on Oct. 1, the listing vessel was taking on water and cargo had broken loose. It lost propulsion at 6:16 a.m. and Davidson gave the order to abandon ship at 7:29 a.m.

A preliminary report submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard found that the El Faro was operating with a minimum margin of stability and would not have met standards for a ship built today.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)