JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A week before El Faro sank near The Bahamas, its captain, Michael Davidson, felt unsure about his future and expressed feeling taken advantage of by the company.
It all came to light in an email read aloud during the questioning of TOTE’s former crewing manager Melissa Clark at Thursday’s Marine Board of Investigation probing the sinking.
Clark now works for Crowley Maritime.
At the time of the sinking, she was in charge of providing the crew on board many of TOTE’s vessels. She knew many of the crew members who were on board the final voyage and during breaks, she was seen hugging family members in the audience.
As the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation enters its final stretch of testimony, families remain focused on their loved ones. Photos of those who died have been a fixture in the front row of the hearing room, but on Thursday, there were two new additions, able seaman Frank Hamm’s helmet and a tribute to the Polish riding crew.
During Clark’s questioning, board member Keith Fawcett read aloud an email sent by Davidson seven days before the sinking.
“'It’s looking like I won’t be home until 03 December. They have no one to relieve me and now I’m actually on my scheduled rotation, which has me home for Christmas. Again, I feel taken advantage of … but, they pay really good. Who knows how long this good fortune will last. I have no idea if I’m even going on the Marlin class vessels yet,'” said Davidson, as read aloud by Fawcett.
Clark testified that she didn’t know why Davidson wasn’t told he wasn’t selected for the job on one of the new Marlin class ships, but expressed concerns about hiring Davidson.
“I felt that there were better candidates available,” said Clark.
Davidson was at one point going to be named the captain of one of the new ships, but an internal decision was made that ultimately meant he would not get the job, despite CEO and president of TOTE Phil Greene describing Davidson as “eminently qualified” for the position.
Clark said, however, that she had little participation in deciding the senior positions on the new ships.
Previous testimony showed that the crewing for the new vessels created tension among crew.
In the voyage data recorder transcript, Davidson and Chief Mate Steven Schultz were heard talking about being on the “choppin’ block” and “waiting to get screwed.”
Earlier in her testimony, Clark said she at times felt like she could use the help of additional staff, but didn’t receive the extra support prior to the sinking. A temp was hired shortly before she left the company.
Clark said that at times, she fielded concerns from crew members aboard El Faro about Davidson’s leadership.
“Without receiving specific information, they left me with the sense that they were frustrated,” said Clark.
Clark said the complaints came from chief cooks, steward department members and able seamen, but added that she heard similar complaints from crew in other vessels as well. She said the complaints were common for many vessels.
“There was a reluctance to give specific details, a reluctance to make formal complaints,” said Clark.
That’s despite a strategy discussed between Clark, the VP of operations, and some senior crew officers about crew cooperation and getting the unlicensed crew members to feel more comfortable bringing forth concerns. The plan internally was known as the “divide and conquer plan.”
“In an attempt to get away from the licensed vs. unlicensed, us against them mentality,” said Clark. “Work collectively as a team, boost morale.”
Davidson’s previous tenure as a captain at Crowley Maritime also came up Thursday. According to the attorney representing Davidson’s widow, William Bennett, Davidson left Crowley after he raised a safety concern.
“That safety issue was the company wanted him to move a ship that had a steering gear problem under its own power, and he refused and ordered tugs because that was the safest means to do it. Are you aware of that?” asked Bennett.
“He did mention a steering gear issue, he didn’t go into that great of detail,” said Clark.
“He was willing to give up his sea-going career as captain over a safety concern. That’s pretty honorable, isn’t it?” said Bennett.
“Yes,” said Clark.
Clark said she did not call Crowley for references before hiring Davidson, and said it was not typical for her to call previous employers.
The hearing will reconvene at 9 a.m. Friday for the final day of testimony.
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