The SS El Faro investigation seemed open and shut. The Captain steered his vessel directly into the path of Hurricane Joaquin back in October 2015 after all.
“Not many of us thought the Marine Board of Investigation would last more than a couple weeks,” said one investigator.
A full two years later, the final report quietly made Coast Guard history. The conclusion certainly blamed the El Faro captain, but it also was highly critical of the Coast Guard itself, the ship owner and the private ship inspection service, The American Bureau of Shipping. For the first time in decades of debate, the Coast Guard reckoned with shortcomings in its inspection systems, shortcomings that here helped send the El Faro to the ocean floor.
One reason the investigation took that direction was the chair of the MBI, Captain Jason Neubauer, whose hallmark running the board was consistent courtesy to all — and a simultaneous, relentless pursuit of records, emails and inspection documents.
“If you just saw Captain Neubauer at the hearing and just judged him from that, you’d miss what really was going on,” said one participant in the hearings. “You are indeed looking at a calm duck moving smoothly on a calm pond seemingly without a care or bother in the world — but down below those feet are just paddling and paddling and paddling intensely.”
Captain Neubauer’s career largely has been spent conducting investigations and inspections. He was chief of the Office of Investigations & Analysis at Coast Guard Headquarters when he took over the El Faro hearing.
His assignment to chair a second major Marine Board of Investigation shows that the Coast Guard brass is signaling its seriousness of purpose by sending such a senior officer.
The El Faro investigation, though one of the most important since the loss of the SS Marine Electric, contained very few dramatic moments such as those that marked the SS Marine Electric MBI.
In part that was because of the difference of eras. Testimony in the 1983 case of the Marine Electric was vital. But in the case of the El Faro, electronic records, emails and recordings sought out by the board provided a treasure trove for investigators.
“Probably what people are going to think on the first day of the hearing is that Captain Neubauer is the politest guy you’ll ever meet outside the Rotary Club,” said one observer of the El Faro hearing. “They’d be right about the politeness, that’s all real. But believe me, he’s not from the Rotary Club, he’s not here to give speeches, shake hands and leave after a nice lunch.”
Here are the deets on the captain’s career from official Coast Guard profiles.
Capt. Neubauer previously served as the commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago from July 2012 to July 2014, where he was responsible for prevention operations spanning 300 miles of Lake Michigan coast line and 180 miles of the Illinois River and its tributaries.
He also served as theprevention department chief and deputy commander at Coast Guard Sector Honolulu from July 2008 to June 2012,
where he was responsible for overseeing Coast Guard
operations throughout a 1.5 million square mile Captain of the Port Zone that includes the entire Hawaiian Islands and American Samoa.
Capt. Neubauer was commissioned as an ensign after graduating from the United States Coast Guard Academy in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science in marine engineering and naval architecture. After completing an initial marine inspection training tour in Seattle, he transferred to Marine Safety Office Morgan City from 1996-2000, where he inspected vessels supporting the offshore drilling industry and served for three years investigating a wide variety of marine casualties.
Capt. Neubauer also served as the supervisor of Marine Safety Detachment St. Paul, Minnesota, from August 2000 until June 2003. In St. Paul, he worked closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and the tug and barge industries that transport vital commerce on the Western rivers.