As a search vessel concluded a futile first week hunting for the wreckage of El Faro, the number of lawsuits filed by crew members’ families continued to mount.
On Wednesday, the family of crew member Anthony Shawn Thomas, a father of five, sued the ship’s owner and the maintenance company that hired a crew of Polish engineers to repair the aging ship, alleging that the ship was poorly maintained and had lost power once before on a voyage in 2011. Attorneys also cited 15 violations on El Faro’s sister ship since 2011 as evidence of the company’s history of poor maintenance.
“We want the companies involved to take responsibility for their role in the tragedy, and we want other shipping companies to learn from these mistakes to make sure this type of disaster does not befall other families,” Houston-based attorney Kurt Arnold said in a statement.
The lawsuit, filed in Broward County circuit court, is the fourth filed so far by family members who say the company and its captain, Michael Davidson, should have aborted a trip that took the 790-foot cargo ship into the path of Hurricane Joaquin earlier this month.
Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, which is owned by Sea Star Line, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“Our focus remains on support and care for the families and their loved ones,” spokeswoman Moira Whalen said in an email to the Herald.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, aboard the U.S. Navy ship Apache, have been searching for El Faro’s wreckage in a 13- by 20-square mile area in the Bahamas near Crooked Island where the cargo ship sank. Three days of searching failed to turn up the ship’s voyage data recorder, which emits pings. It could help investigators understand what happened when the ship went down about 36 miles from the hurricane’s eye on Oct. 6.
Finding the recorder may be hampered by the ship’s position on the ocean floor, about 15,000 feet deep, or the condition of the recorder, NTSB officials said.
Officials are also hoping to locate wreckage using sonar equipment that sweeps the ocean floor. Two initial sweeps came up empty. Eleven more sweeps will be made over the next 12 days, an NTSB statement said.
Maritime experts say El Faro likely went down quickly. Searchers found only one wrecked life boat and a body in a survival suit, which was not recovered. El Faro was what mariners call a Ro-Ro, which are designed to make it easy for containers to be easily rolled on and off ship but are notoriously unstable. In 1987, a Ro-Ro car ferry leaving a Belgian port capsized and sank in minutes after a hatch was left open, killing 193 passengers and crew members. In 1994, another ferry crossing the Baltic Sea sank after a bow door opened. More than 850 died.
Attorneys for Thomas’ wife, Tinisha, say tracking data shows El Faro sailing at full speed west toward the “hole in the wall,” a channel through the Bahamas. But for some reason, Davidson aborted the route and continued toward the storm. The next day, the ship’s engine failed, leaving it powerless as it listed at a 15-degree angle.
The suit also claims that El Faro, which was undergoing “significant” maintenance while en route to Puerto Rico, was not fit to sail. Four years ago, the ship lost power after faulty wiring shut down its engine.
Tote was “aware of the extreme risk posed by the conditions,” the suit says, “but did nothing to rectify them.”