The “Sky Captains” of the NTSB Should Own Their Own “Walk of Shame” for Decades of Inaction in Major Merchant Marine Cases

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Quite rightly, the NTSB and Congress have handed the Coast Guard some sharp public “dope slaps” this past week, pointing out that the Coasties have for years ignored NTSB recommendations on small passenger boat safety inspections.

Hurray for them. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The NTSB is a civilian op and its maritime organization has played important roles in keeping the Coast Guard straight.

Except when it hasn’t.

And unfortunately in the history of modern maritime major investigations into big-ship merchant marine casualties, the NTSB has been a weak presence — in some important cases undermining important reform thrusts of the Coast Guard.

NTSB successes?

The recovery of the El Faro “black box” was extraordinary.

And the NTSB was instrumental decades ago in forcing ancient rusting hulks from the Great Lakes after the sinking of the Daniel Morrell. Prodded by the NTSB, the Coast Guard cleared the lakes of the worst of its ancient rust buckets.

But then in the realm of saltwater merchant marine fleet affairs, the NTSB took a dive that lasted decades. The old ships of the American merchant marine continued to sink under a system where the Coast Guard fully acknowledged that it would not force unsafe ships from service because of economic pressures from shipping companies, maritime unions and Congress itself.

The NTSB could have stepped up in the case of the SS Poet in 1980, a horrible old rust bucket that disappeared off the Atlantic Coast. Instead it endorsed a Coast Guard hearing that bent over backwards to stay blind about the documented infirmities of the vessel and the truly horrible record of the ship’s owner and operator. Its investigators actively discouraged evidence and testimony concerning the rickety old fleet of the ship operator.

Move forward to the case of the Marine Electric, and the NTSB concurred with much of the critical Coast Guard report — but only after one NTSB investigator attempted to muzzle crusading Captain Dominic Calicchio’s tough questioning of the ship operators.

Fast forward to the case of the SS El Faro and you see the very best and worst of the NTSB at play. The best? That incredible pursuit of the data recorder “black box” that allowed the dead crew to in effect testify.

The worst? The NTSB undercut its own chief investigator, Tom Roth-Roffy, and supported ship owner attorneys who demanded Roth-Roffy apologize for tough questioning. (He made the apology and a short time later retired while the hearing was still underway.)

Moreover, in the press conference and statement, the chairman of the NTSB seemed to some to undercut or at least cloud the direction of its own investigators by stating:

“We may never understand why the captain failed to heed his crew’s concerns about sailing into the path of a hurricane, or why he refused to chart a safer course away from such dangerous weather,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt.  “But we know all too well the devastating consequences of those decisions.”

In fact, the NTSB investigators here spent a lot of time determining that the captain probably was pressured by the ship operators policies and that he might well have felt less pressure to sail had the company had its act together.

Nor did the chairman stress in his opening remarks the poor inspections and approved modifications to the ship that contributed to the sinking.

By stressing the “cray-cray Captain” theory, the chairman seemed to gloss over the vital ship deficiencies and company failures — the same areas Roth-Roffy stressed.

And in a final insult, two of the three NTSB board members went after the subordinate El Faro officers who warned the captain. They ought to have taken firmer action, the two said.

Board Member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, to her credit, dissented and noted that the NTSB board members experience as sky captains didn’t really count on the sea. She said:

“Seafaring has existed for thousands of years. The term and position of a professional master has existed for centuries. In the maritime profession, much like in the military profession, a power differential exists that is necessary to maintaining good order and discipline. This power differential has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years—so in that respect, the power differential is not comparable to that of a pilot and copilot in aviation—an industry which is just over 100 years old.

“…we also cannot ignore hundreds of years of seafaring history or minimize the importance and courage of the El Faro mates in making these middle-of-the-night calls to the captain.”

“(Bridge Resource Management) in maritime is important—it is important for the crew to communicate and work as a team. However, in this case, the mates “challenging” the master during a storm is more akin to the lieutenant challenging the general’s orders on thebattlefield—there is a proper way to do it given the necessary power differential.”

So what we have front and center seems to be a National Transportation Safety Board with a V-8 engine — firing on half cylinders when it comes to cases involving large merchant vessels and safety.

Why did the NTSB for years give the merchant marine a pass — a pass revoked clearly by the Marine Electric Coast Guard board. My guess is that it’s “sky captain” board just does not have a basic understanding how to navigate maritime investigation waters. Otherwise, why would it undermine its own investigators, who do know those waters?

So, sure, the NTSB intervention and criticism of the Coast Guard’s failure to regulate DUKW’s and dive ships is appropriate.

That tends to happen when passengers and the general public are the victims.

The walk of shame is this: that the NTSB sat by while very old, unsafe merchant vessels carried their crews to their deaths.

Some deaths should not be more equal than others.


Dive Boat Conception
The LA Times files a well-done investigation into the dive boat Conception and the Coast Guard’s failure to enact NTSB recommendations. (I had a piece of this back in September. The Times takes it mainstream.)

Freedom of Information Act
We’ve appealed the FOIA requested information denied by the Coast Guard. Essentially, the names of ships cited by the Coast Guard as “high risk.” In the meantime, we offer our own list.

Until the Sea Shall Free Them (Free online)
You can read the history of merchant marine safety enforcement and the role the NTSB did and did not play, here.

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