JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The freighter El Faro received a subscription weather service report that contained outdated information the day before it sank during a hurricane, killing all 33 crew members including four from Maine.

Officials for Applied Weather Technology Inc. testified Wednesday before the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation panel, which is investigating whether there were problems with the vessel’s stability or mistakes in weather forecasting or cargo loading before the ship’s final voyage. Key questions also remain about routing decisions made by its captain, Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham, Maine.

Richard Brown, vice president of operations for the weather company, said Davidson was receiving tracking data on Hurricane Joaquin that was 10 hours old, even as the storm strengthened rapidly in the time before the ship went down.

A National Hurricane Center official said Tuesday that its initial Joaquin forecasts – used by El Faro’s owner, Tote Services Inc. – also contained significant errors.

The 790-foot-long El Faro was carrying a load of cargo from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when it sank on Oct. 1. Besides Davidson, Maine residents among the crew included Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton, and Danielle Randolph, 34, and Dylan Meklin, 23, both of Rockland. All were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy, as was a fifth crewman, Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York.

On and before Oct. 1, Davidson had indicated to colleagues that he thought he could steer south of the storm. But the Category 4 storm, which packed 130 mph winds and 30- to 40-foot waves, passed directly over the El Faro’s path. In his final communications from the ship, the captain reported that it had lost propulsion, had taken on water and was listing to one side.

No survivors were found. In terms of loss of life, it was the worst U.S. commercial cargo ship disaster in decades. James Franklin, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialist unit, testified Tuesday that the agency’s initial forecasts of Joaquin contained errors “much larger” than normal.

Franklin said Joaquin was initially forecast as a “relatively weak system” that would head west-northwest and dissipate in the days when the El Faro was sailing between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. Instead, Joaquin moved south-southwest, strengthened into a strong hurricane and was 536 miles off its predicted initial track.

Davidson was aware of the storm, according to emails and texts he sent colleagues. He emailed Tote officials the day before the ship sank advising that he may take a slower, safer route. He was given the OK by a Tote manager, but the ship never made it.

Search crews recently discovered the El Faro’s voyage data recorder in 15,000 feet of water, and the National Transportation Safety Board is planning a recovery mission for the device, which could contain recordings from the bridge.

The Coast Guard says a future round of hearings will explore the recorder’s data if the device is recovered.


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