El Faro's emergency beacon didn't have GPS capabilities, lifeboats likely didn't launch

by: Lorena Inclan, Action News Jax Updated:

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Early detection of El Faro’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, proved difficult for search and rescue teams.

Experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, testified Wednesday about the distress phase of El Faro.

Michael “Mickey” Fitzmaurice, a SARSAT Program systems engineer with NOAA put together an animation showing how five low-orbit satellites passed over near El Faro but at the time its EPIRB signal was emitted, none were in view.

That signal instead went to a satellite that was much farther away from earth and because El Faro’s beacon didn’t have GPS capabilities, it was not able to provide an exact location.

If a closer satellite would’ve picked up that signal, it could’ve provided a more exact location.

Fitzmaurice also said that El Faro’s beacon was sending bursts for 24 minutes, but didn’t know why it stopped.

According to Fitzmaurice, they were also using another group of satellites that were in the experimental phase at the time and believes that if they had been fully operational they would’ve been able to get a location for the ship.



Those satellites are now operating and Fitzmaurice said they have helped in various occasions.

Tio Devaney, the director of operations for Palfinger Marine, testified about El Faro’s lifeboats post sinking.

He examined photos of the lifeboats that were badly damaged.

“In my opinion I don’t think this boat was launched,” said Devaney.

Devaney said in his experience, he’s never seen a successful abandon ship into lifeboats of any kind during hurricane conditions.

“I can’t think of any scenario of survivability in hurricane conditions,” said Devaney.

He then gave a candid response when asked by the National Transportation Safety Board what, if anything, could’ve helped the crew survive.

“The vessel maybe not being there, but if we were to take that approach, then all global trade would stop. The life of a seafarer is a challenging one,” said Devaney.

Devaney told the board the captain has to always consider the weather before ordering to abandon ship and that the first choice would be to stay with the vessel.

“If I didn’t have that as an option, I would not want to be in an open lifeboat,” said Devaney. “You’d have a higher risk of falling out of the lifeboat.”

According to the Devaney, the more modern enclosed lifeboats are more survivable but regulations allowed El Faro to keep the open design.