Mario Vittone is wrong about El Faro - At least we should all hope he's wrong

Mario Vittone, a maritime risk and safety consultant, recently wrote an article for GCaptain, one of the most popular maritime websites in the world.

The article is titled "We Won't Learn Anything: What Sank El Faro and What Didn't." I have never met with Mr. Vittone nor spoken with him. He appears to have an impressive background in maritime-related issues and I have no issue with him personally.

I take issue with his conclusions, though, many of which are demonstrably incorrect. 

In the first paragraph, Mr. Vittone claims that he already knows that "we won't learn anything" from the investigations and says that "[w]e already know what sank El Faro." He then spends considerable time talking about various issues, including EPIRBs, lifeboats, trip planning, and other related topics, and provides some thoughtful analysis.

But Mr. Vittone then concludes categorically that the investigation won't lead to any "meaningful change." He says "We aren't going to learn anything that will help us avoid this tragedy in the future. Nothing we find out will make us safer from our ability to think we know better." 

This is exactly the kind of attitude that prevents any meaningful change in the first place.

We can't jump to conclusions - A thorough and independent investigation is a must 

It is far too early for anyone to say that we know what caused the El Faro tragedy. The Coast Guard hasn't even found the ship itself, let alone the men and women who served on the ship. At the very least, shouldn't we let the families grieve before we jump to conclusions about what caused this tragedy?

A thorough investigation by truly independent investigators -- not investigators with connections to shipowners or the industry -- is an absolute requirement. Then and only then will anyone truly be able to determine the root causes of this tragedy.

The families deserve nothing less than a full, independent, public, and thorough investigation before anyone jumps to conclusions.

I have personally been involved in countless maritime accident investigations, including when I represented crewmembers on the Maersk Alabama, the U.S. ship that was attacked and captured by Somali pirates. I can say without any reservation at all that company-led investigations, and even government-led investigations, are often incomplete. In many cases, such investigations are not only incomplete but reach the wrong conclusions.

Why? Because for obvious reasons, company-led investigations will be focused on investigating an incident from a certain point-of-view, even if the company personnel involved are earnestly seeking the truth. It is human nature. Companies cannot investigate their own conduct from a truly independent perspective. 

The same analysis applies to government investigations, whether it be the Coast Guard, the F.B.I. (the F.B.I. participated in the Maersk Alabama investigation), or other governmental agencies. Like company-led investigations, investigations by governmental agencies analyze incidents from a certain point of view, and they often seek answers to questions that differ from the questions that a different investigator would ask. For example, the government investigators in the Maersk Alabama case did not closely examine why the ship was in the pirate hot zone to begin with. Simply put, the government was investigating different issues than we looked at during our investigation.

Change is hard - But it is possible

Second, I do not think it is appropriate to assume at this point that "nothing will change." This kind of thought process prevents change.

It's also wrong. I could list example after example of tragedies that led to meaningful change.

In the Maersk Alabama case, everyone immediately jumped to conclusions, thinking that the pirates were the bad guys and Captain Phillips was the good guy. While there was no question at all that the pirates were "bad guys," there were a lot of questions raised about the motivations and actions of the shipping industry in placing unprotected sailors into pirate-infested hot zones and what could be done to better protect U.S. mariners sailing in dangerous waters.

When we first sued Maersk, we has two fundamental arguments. First, we argued that U.S. ships should avoid hot zones to the maximum extent possible. Second, we argued for protecting U.S. sailors with better security countermeasures, including arming the crew or providing trained security teams when sailors were in high risk regions like the Gulf of Aden.

When we made these arguments, the crew and I took a lot of criticism. Industry insiders and their paid spokespeople claimed that arming sailors or providing guards would be more dangerous, apparently because these so-called "experts" believe that mariners are too stupid to be trained with weapons. 

Turned out that the crewmembers I represented were right and the critics and industry insiders were dead wrong. And history has proven that we were right and they were wrong. 

It is an undeniable fact that since the Maersk Alabama hijacking, ships sailing in the Gulf of Aden have increases security countermeasures, including arming ships with weapons, providing armed security crews, and reinforcing the safety measures aboard commercial ships -- just like we argued they should have done. 

And guess what? Since that time, to my knowledge, not a single U.S. commercial ship has been successfully attacked by pirates when the ship had appropriate security measures. Piracy in the region has plummeted.

Change can and does happen. And that change can have a positive impact on thousands of mariners.

Conclusion

A thorough, independent investigation must occur. We cannot jump to conclusions. And we have to believe that change will happen, even though it is often hard to force change when met with fierce resistance from industry.

But change takes determination and courage. I see acts of courage every day when one of my seafaring clients take on a powerful company. Like the crew of the Maersk Alabama and thousands of seafarers everywhere, the real heros aren't Captain Richard Phillips or others - the real heroes are the men and women who sail on our ships and have the courage to fight to improve conditions for themselves and others.

Make no mistake--change isn't easy. Especially when you are opposed by entrenched industries with deep pockets and lots of connections. But change is possible as long as you have the determination, persistence, and courage to force it to happen.