A federal safety panel has started an investigation into the sinking of the HMS Bounty during Hurricane Sandy, hearing testimony on Tuesday from the ship's chief mate.
John Svendsen spoke before the panel in Portsmouth, Va., about the circumstances leading up to the decision to depart New London for St. Petersburg, Fla., while the storm was approaching the coast, according to the Associated Press. The panel, which includes members of the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, will run through Feb. 21.
The investigation's goal is to determine what led to the sinking so that the Coast Guard may "develop conclusions and recommendations to improve the safety and operations of similar vessels." It will also determine whether any negligence, misconduct, equipment failure, breach of duty, or violation of law contributed to the shipwreck, according to the Virginia-Pilot.
The Bounty, a 180-foot tall ship built as a replica for the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, arrived in New London on Oct. 23 and departed for Florida two days later. It sank in rough seas about 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C. Fourteen crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard. Crew member Claudene Christian, 42, was found in a subsequent search and later pronounced dead; the ship's captain, 63-year-old Robin Walbridge, was not found during a four-day search and presumed dead.
Svendsen said Walbridge felt the ship would be safer on the ocean than in port and that he would be able to judge a safe path of navigation on the edge of the storm once at sea. He said Walbridge offered crew members a chance to disembark at New London before departure, but that no one did so.
Svendsen said Walbridge twice refused Svendsen's recommendation to abandon ship and did not immediately inform the Coast Guard of flooding and failing generators in the ship, instead trying to restore the equipment to a working condition. He said Walbridge later agreed to abandon the vessel, but that it rolled and pitched the crew into the water before they could begin an orderly evacuation.
The ship's owner, New York businessman Robert Hansen, has invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in declining to appear before the panel. According to the Herald News, Hansen put $3.5 million into restoring the Bounty and told the magazine Professional Mariner that the ship had endured worse conditions than Hurricane Sandy and would have been able to survive the storm if the generators had not failed.
The investigation will hear from surviving crew members, shipyard workers who worked on restoring the Bounty, and owners of other tall ships who chose to delay departure rather than sail while the hurricane was approaching. The panel will not impose any criminal charges, but may refer any evidence of criminal wrongdoing to federal prosecutors.