JACKSONVILLE, FLA. >> 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.
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, Michael 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.
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.
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.