El Faro Captain Was Fired By Crowley In Row Over Safety

John Konrad
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December 14, 2016

The El Faro is shown in this undated handout photo provided by Tote Maritime in Jacksonville, Florida, October 2, 2015. Photo: Tote Maritime

A Newly released transcipt of audio recording the El Faro’s last moments show a calm and collected Captain remaining on the bridge of his ship to help a crewmate stricken by fear and possible injury. An action above and beyond the call of duty, and with total disregard for his own life… action that, had the El Faro been an US Navy ship, would have qualified Davidson for a medal for physical courage. But the Navy also recognizes another type of bravery once exhibited by Captain Davidson; moral courage.

The widow of the captain of the El Faro described her husband as a cautious and experienced mariner who did not cut corners. A commitment to safety that required moral courage and had once caused his career to spiral down from Master to Junior Safety Officer – Third Mate.

“He wanted things done correctly, you know, by the book. Everything he did was by the book,” Theresa Davidson said of her husband, Michael Davidson, in a newly released transcript of testimony she gave to investigators back in January.

Mrs. Davidson discussed her husband’s years of service aboard Polar Tankers in Alaska, his professional achievements – including First Class pilot certificates for the infamously dangerous waters surrounding Valdez Alaska – and his commitment to the safety of his ship and crew. A commitment that once got him fired.

After working as Chief Mate aboard Tankers in Alaska Captain Davidson went to work for Crowley Maritime. Davidson did well there and was given command of his first ship but his dreams ended when got in an argument with managers over safety concerns.

“He left the Crowley ships because there was an incident where they were asking him to do something that was unsafe on the ship as captain.” Said Mrs. Davidson. “They wanted him to take the ship from one port to another port when he was told by, that the steering wasn’t safe. And he said I’m not going to do that. Then he ordered two tugs to move the ship”

Details on what happened next are scant because NTSB and USCG investigators failed to ask Mrs. Davidson for specific details. We do not know if Crowley had other complaints against the Captain… but we do know that he was fired from Crowley. We also know that in his opinion the decision to order those tugboats, a decision he made for safety reasons, was a domino that set his career in free fall.

“When he came back from vacation they weren’t too happy with the (tugboat) bill” said Mrs. Davidson. “(Crowley) told him he was no longer employed. So that’s why he took the third mate job with TOTE. That’s why he ended up over there.”

Had TOTE warned him not to make the same mistake again? Did the consequences of that act alter his perspective as Captain? We don’t know. But those short snippets of testimony provide the only clue gCaptain has uncovered about why Davidson delayed transmitting Mayday – a message his 2nd Mate had prepared 41 minutes before it was sent – until after he talked with the company’s designated person ashore.

Captain Davison is the only Master in recent memory who – as far as the evidence can tell – died at his post, on the bridge of his ship, for the sole reason of ensuring that the last remaining crew member under his direct command had a chance of survival. The facts clearly show that Captain Davidson acted with Physical Courage on the morning of October 1st, 2015.

The facts also suggest Davidson acted with Moral Courage years before as Master aboard a Crowley ship. But, to be clear, we do not know what effect, if any, the consequences of that act had on the decisions he made aboard the El Faro. Nor do I want to suggest that Crowley is at fault. I only ask, as a United States Merchant Mariner, that the NTSB and USCG  do more than ask the cursory questions they have released so far. We, as mariners, ask that the NTSB act in a more detailed and professional in there questioning approach and follow-up.

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