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El Faro captain sought route change a day before ship sank

JACKSONVILLE, Florida -- The captain of the doomed freighter El Faro emailed his superiors asking about changing the route home the day before his ship sank near the Bahamas.

The email from Michael Davidson asked whether he could take a slower route home from Puerto Rico. The El Faro sank Oct. 1 while sailing from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, killing all 33 aboard. Investigators are seeking answers about who bears responsibility for the ship sailing into a hurricane.

NTSB may press search for evidence in El Faro sinking

Philip Morrell, vice president of marine operations for Tote Services Inc., told a U.S. Coast Guard investigative panel on Tuesday that it is not company policy for captains to ask for permission about voyages or routes. Morrell said the email showed common courtesy by the captain, not evidence that management dictated the ship's route.

A series of U.S. 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.

El Faro was distinctive in a few ways; she served the U.S. military in the Iraq War, she was cut in half two decades ago and lengthened 90 feet, and she was 40 years old, an age when container ships are commonly sold for scrap. "60 Minutes" did a story on the El Faro last month.

The U.S. naval ship Apache carved a calm Atlantic off the Bahamas, on the search for El Faro. She carried sophisticated diving technology under the command of Captain Gregg Baumann, the Navy's supervisor of salvage and diving.

"Unfortunately, in a lot of the things that we do, it does involve a tragedy like this. And it's just absolutely gut-wrenching," he told "60 Minutes." "But, at the end of the day what it is that you really want to do is bring answers back, bring-- help bring closure to the families."

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, Davidson, attempted to outrun the storm, but lost engine power and control of the ship.

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

Video shows chilling wreckage of sunken cargo ship El Faro

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 should never have been allowed to sail into the path of a hurricane.

The company has refused to comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing legal cases.

A number of questions remain unanswered about the ill-fated voyage.

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 unanswered 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 is planning a second search for the recorder.

Lost in the Bermuda Triangle

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.

"If criminal actions are found those findings will be turned over to the Department of Justice," Coast Guard spokeswoman Alana Ingram said.

Top officials for TOTE are scheduled to testify first about the ship's history, upkeep and role in its fleet. Former El Faro crew members are also expected to take the stand, as well as Coast Guard personnel. At least two of the deceased crew members were from Maine.

A second session of hearings scheduled later this year will address the ship's final voyage and the decisions made by the company and captain to set sail despite the storm.

After all of the hearings are finished, the Coast Guard will release a report of its findings.