JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A series of Coast Guard hearings starting Tuesday will seek answers about why the 790-foot freighter El Faro sank near the Bahamas last fall, killing all 33 crew members in the worst U.S. commercial maritime disaster in decades.

The hearings in Jacksonville are expected to probe many questions, chief among them whether misconduct, negligence or shoddy safety inspections contributed to the El Faro’s demise.

The El Faro set sail from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico on Sept. 29 as a powerful storm that would become Hurricane Joaquin churned offshore. The ship’s captain, Michael Davidson of Maine, tried to outrun the storm, but lost engine power and control of the ship.

The storm overtook the aged vessel; its wreckage was later discovered 15,000 feet deep in the Atlantic. The ship’s navigation tower had detached, and there was a breach in its hull.

A number of the crew member families have filed lawsuits against Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, the ship’s owner. The suits charge the company with negligence and say officials knew the 41-year-old ship was due to be taken out of service and never should have been allowed to sail into the path of a hurricane.

The National Transportation Safety Board and Coast Guard are looking into why the captain decided to set sail even with a strong storm looming offshore. Investigators also want to know if a crew of five Polish engineers that were onboard to prepare the engines for the El Faro’s upcoming retrofitting had any role in the ship’s loss of power.

NTSB officials believe some questions could be answered by finding the ship’s voyage data recorder, or “black box.” So far, efforts to retrieve it have been unsuccessful. The NTSB plans a second search for the recorder.

The Coast Guard can only bring civil charges as a result of its investigations. Still, testimony at its hearings can lead to criminal prosecution if laws were broken.

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