More than a year after a Marine Board of Investigation called for civil charges against the owner of the lost ship SS El Faro, the Jacksonville Sector of the US Coast Guard — called out by the Marine Board of Investigation for complicating its probe into the loss of the SS El Faro — has yet to bring the charges against a company now commanded by Jacksonville Sector’s former commander.
The delay follows a December 2017 statement by the Commandant of the Coast Guard promising “swift action” in reforming the Coast Guard maritime inspection system.
It also occurs as the former Coast Guard Commander of Jacksonville Sector, whose actions were cited in the Marine Board of Investigation as discouraging of Tote ship inspections, has ascended in the private sector to become president of Tote Services— the owner of the El Faro.
Captain Jeff Dixon, promoted to president of Tote in January, served as Sector Commander for Jacksonville, at a time when the SS El Faro sailed with serious inspection deficiencies. After retirement, he moved over to the company in May 2017.
There is no indication that Captain Dixon and Tote maintained a quid pro quo relationship or acted improperly or that Captain Dixon’s movement into the private sector is unusual. Former colleagues speak highly of Captain Dixon’s skills and professionalism. In fact, such “revolving door” movements into the private sector are common in the Coast Guard, with former Commandants sometimes taking senior executive positions at inspection agencies hired by the Coast Guard to outsource inspections.
The question posed rather is whether such an atmosphere creates a climate and culture that makes Coast Guard officials too comfortable with the private companies they regulate.
“The Marine Board of Investigation was told that Jacksonville Sector and Tote Services had an excellent professional relationship,” one safety expert stated. “In light of the condition of the SS El Faro and other ships, you have to ask if that professional relationship made the Coast Guard too comfortable and prone to overlooking inspections.”
The Marine Board of Investigation said Captain Dixon ordered national Coast Guard inspectors to stop their work on the sister ship of the SS El Faro, the SS El Yunque, in January of 2016, after local inspectors said Traveling Inspectors were being too aggressive. The El Yunque was allowed to sail from Jacksonville even though Traveling Inspectors believed it to be substandard. Other inspectors outside Jacksonville confirmed this and the ship eventually was forced to the scrap yard.
The Marine Board criticized Coast Guard sector commands in general for not placing a proper priority on marine safety. But it singled out Jacksonville in this note, describing how Traveling Inspectors had punched through rusted ventilation shafts and were aggressively moving forward with an inspection of the El Yunque when Captain Dixon ordered them to stop.
As the Traveling Inspectors were discussing expansion of their inspection to additional ventilation trunks, the senior Traveling Inspector received a cell phone call from the Sector Jacksonville Commanding Officer (Captain Dixon.). The Sector Commander, as the OCMI for the Port of Jacksonville, ordered the
Traveling Inspectors to stop further inspection and hammer testing of EL YUNQUE’s ventilation trunks because it exceeded the scope of the DOC audit.
The El Faro went down in Hurricane Joaquin with 33 officers and crew. A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation blamed the captain of the ship for braving the storm, and also blamed major inspection failures by Jacksonville Sector and other Coast Guard units for missing severe wastage on the rusting 40-year-old ship. The Final Action Memo from the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Zukunft, promised swift responses to the Marine Board of Investigation.
“This is a call to action for the entire maritime community. TOTE, ABS, and the Coast Guard must learn and more with a sense of urgency,” the Final Action Memo stated.
“This tragic story points to the need for a strong and enduring commitment at all elements of the safety framework.”
But that was in December of 2017 and 15 months later, a date for release of the civil actions is yet to be named. The long amount of time elapsed in bringing charges in a tragedy involving mariners stands in stark contrast to incidents where civilian passengers are lost. In a recent DUKW boat sinking, for example, a Marine Board of Investigation referred felony criminal charges to the US Attorney, who acted on them before the board finished its report.
“Sector Jacksonville continues to work on the civil penalties,” a Coast Guard spokesman said last week. “We cannot comment further on open civil penalty actions.”
A Jacksonville Coast Guard spokesman said earlier that Captain Dixon never was involved in considering the civil penalties. And a national Coast Guard spokesman said Captain Dixon has not violated any “revolving door” policies regulating government employees who are later employed in the private sector.
“District 7 legal staff reviewed the circumstances of Capt. Dixon’s employment with Tote and Capt. Dixon complied with all applicable statutes and regulations related to post-government employment by retiring military members,” the Coast Guard said.
Captain Dixon and Tote also said that Captain Dixon misunderstood the circumstances of the El Yunque inspection and that the Marine Board report is not completely accurate in assessing his actions. The company issued this statement in reply to a reporter’s query:
“We appreciate you reaching out to TOTE and Capt. Dixon regarding the El Faro and giving him a chance to respond to your questions.
“In talking with Capt. Dixon to learn what occurred, it is his opinion the portion of the report you are enquiring about is not completely accurate. He first learned about this when the MBI report was released and it caught him by surprise.
“On the day in question, ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) was the agency conducting the DOC audit under the ACP. Coast Guard headquarters sent a 3 person Traveling Inspection team to observe the ABS process. Captain Dixon, being the senior Coast Guard official in the region, sent a member of his inspection staff to observe which is customary.
“At one point during the morning of the DOC audit, Capt Dixon’s Chief of Inspections felt one of the Traveling Inspectors was pressurizing the audit. This concern was relayed to Capt. Dixon who instructed his Chief of Inspections to inform the lead Traveling Inspector not to take over or be perceived as taking over ABS’s audit.
“Capt Dixon also passed word to have the lead Traveling Inspector to call him but that call did not take place for several hours. During the call the lead Traveling Inspector acknowledged Capt Dixon’s concerns but he never mentioned anything about hammering on a potentially questionable area of the El Yunque. In hindsight he feels he should have better clarified his message to the Traveling Inspector.
“Capt Dixon knew nothing about the Inspector hammering on vent trunks, nor was he contacted by any member of the MBI or Coast Guard headquarters to request any input regarding the events as they occurred.”
Mariners and Captain Dixon’s former colleagues in the Coast Guard have differing views of how tough Jacksonville and Captain Dixon were. All concede that Sector Commands in general across the country took marine inspections too lightly and Captain Dixon was not alone. Said one former Coast Guard officer of the situation”
“The Sector Commanders across the board were likely to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got search and rescue, drug interdiction, and pollution to chase. That’s the real work, don’t bother me with inspections.
“We saw how wrong that was,” the officer said.
While the Coast Guard report clearly was critical of Jacksonville, one mariner, who sailed on the El Faro, said he sensed no favoritism by Jacksonville inspectors. “If we had a choice, we always preferred to have inspections done in Puerto Rico, because we felt they were a bit easier on us,” the officer said.
He added that in general, the inspections at Jacksonville and Puerto Rico were lax.
Said a former senior Coast Guard officer: “This may have been more a conflict of jurisdiction than a conflict of interests. It’s sort of like the movies where the local sheriff resents the FBI trying to take over a case. I would not automatically judge Captain Dixon.”
Still, fifteen months after the Commandant of the Coast Guard cited the El Faro case as a “call to action” for the agency, the report remains bound within the Coast Guard bureaucracy. And Jacksonville Sector faces the task of pressing civil charges against a company now commanded by its former commander.
The civil penalties against Tote kicked around for months between Jacksonville and attorneys at Headquarters. At one time, sources said the hold-up came from the fact that attorneys were uncertain they could bring the charges because the formal log of the El Faro could not be found. The case was returned to Jacksonville months ago, however, without resulting action.
“I suppose all of these developments are understandable at some level,” said a maritime safety expert. “But at some point, you have to conclude that Jacksonville Sector has a tin ear problem. They missed the serious problems on board the El Faro, then stopped the inspection of the sister ship after 33 people had died, and now are inexplicably late on relatively straight forward and minor civil actions.”
The recommended civil actions include these points:
- Tote violated rest hours for deck officers in a systematic manner, specifically for Second Mate Danielle Randolph, the Marine Board found.
- Moreover, TOTE did not adequately give safety training to the “riding crew” of Polish nationals on board to convert the ship for Alaska use.
- The company also failed to report to the Coast Guard repairs to lifesaving equipment as required by law.
- Tote also is alleged to have not reported to the Coast Guard repairs to the ship’s main boiler
Asked if Jacksonville Sector carried some responsibility for the loss of the El Faro, a Coast Guard headquarters spokesperson said the inspection system of the Coast Guard failed generally.
Here is the question and answer from the Coast Guard.
Did Sector Jacksonville err in failing to catch the conditions on board the El Faro and El Yunque?
The conditions on the El FARO and EL YUNQUE developed over a number of years, and if the Safety Management System was effectively working, those conditions would have been identified and/or corrected by the ship’s crew, owner/operator, ACS and the Coast Guard. Due to the fact that the vessel was enrolled in ACP, there was a reduction in Coast Guard led inspections for this vessel, as we relied on the ACS to conduct surveys. ROI Recommendations #21-24 addresses oversight, efficiency, accountability/transparency, and performance of the Authorized Class Society. As a result of the investigation, a greater emphasis is being placed on the direct oversight of ACSs, data driven risk assessments of vessels and companies, and more stringent accountability of owner/operators and the ACSs.