Fifth lawsuit filed against TOTE Maritime in sinking of cargo ship.
Nearly one month after El Faro sank, search crews with the U.S. Navy confirmed they’ve found the cargo ship.
The 790-foot ship left port in Jacksonville heading for Puerto Rico but went down Oct. 1 near the Bahamas as Hurricane Joaquin tore through the area. The 33 sailors on board are presumed dead.
The families of nine of those crew members have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the company that owned the ship, TOTE Maritime, claiming El Faro wasn’t seaworthy and shouldn’t have sailed into a hurricane. The most recent lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of the five Polish sailors who were part of the crew.
Company officials recently filed paperwork in federal court, asking a judge to set the maximum liability for damages around $15 million. All the cases are still pending.
“TOTE and Sea Star claimed that they did nothing wrong and they are attempting to limit their liability to the value of the vessel and its cargo and establish a fund of roughly $15 million which would be less than half a million dollars per family,” attorney Michael Winkleman said. “This is remarkably insensitive to the family of lost crew members.”
On Saturday, a Navy ship using side-scanning sonar found the freighter in about 15,000 feet of water.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is heading the investigation into the ship’s sinking, said El Faro was on the ocean floor upright and in one piece.
Now, crews are surveying the area to find clues about what happened to the ship and recover the voyage data recorder or “black box.”
Scott Anderson, president of Jacksonville’s Logan Diving and Salvage, said Navy crews have a tough task ahead of them. They have to send a robotic rig, called a remotely operated vehicle, 15,000 feet underwater to find out what happened to El Faro.
“It would be very difficult because of the depth of the water, the currents, lack of light or visibility down there,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s company uses similar technology, including high definition cameras that they send below to survey wrecks and pipelines. He said because the ship appears to be upright on the ocean floor, searchers should be able to find the “black box.”
“Certainly, a voyage data recorder would help shed light on the conditions and what led up to the incident,” Anderson said.
Walt Joslyn, a diving instructor who spent more than two decades with the Navy, has experience surveying shipwrecks.
“They will take thousands of photographs, and they will study those photographs, and they will be able to give you a pretty good idea,” Joslyn said.
He said even if they don’t find the on-board data recorder, the investigators might be able to find out why the ship sank.
“If there is any large structural damage as far as cracks, holes in the hull, they should be able to tell,” Joslyn said. “Large major hatchets that were ripped off from the sea. Seas of 30 to 40 feet will take a hatch and rip it right off the boat, and then you have a gigantic hole.”
Both experts said it could take time to survey such a huge ship that’s so far below the ocean’s surface. They said it could take weeks, if not months, but the Navy has highly trained sailors with the best equipment in the world, so they’re confident the families of the 33 people aboard will someday get the answers they need.