A U.S. Coast Guard inspector ignored a recommendation to pull samples of the nails holding together the El Toro II, saying that when he saw the boat in March and April 1993, he found no problems to warrant a closer look.
"From all appearances, it was a very tight, well-put-together vessel," Master Chief Petty Officer Dale S. Moore testified before an inquiry in Baltimore yesterday.
But on Dec. 5, less than eight months after its last Coast Guard inspection, the El Toro II sank on a fishing trip in the Chesapeake Bay, killing three people.
Yesterday's testimony from several Coast Guard inspectors revealed that the El Toro had been cited for violations in the past, but that most had been remedied and that the wooden fishing boat was "about average" for boats of its kind.
But the fasteners, nails, spikes, bolts and screws that hold the boat together apparently had never been replaced during its 31-year lifespan.
Chief Moore testified that he spent about five hours inspecting the hull of the El Toro when it was in dry dock in March. But his description of the El Toro was in sharp contrast to that given by a marine surveyor hired by the insurance company.
Three days before the boat sank, the inspector wrote in a report that the boat "may be the worst Coast Guard-inspected boat I have seen," and deemed the vessel unfit to operate or carry passengers.
A new clue
Also yesterday, the Coast Guard and National Transportation VTC Safety Board panel conducting the investigation received a new clue into why the boat's hull ruptured.
Coast Guard Commander Glenn Anderson, who is overseeing the inquiry, introduced a report from a marine electrical specialist who concluded that fasteners were corroded by electricity generated from the interaction of metals in the boat's hull.
Paul V. Fleury, owner of Marine Services, specialists in marine electrical systems, inspected the El Toro earlier this week. He found that although the most of boat's wiring was "unsuitable," it did not contribute to the sinking.
Instead, Mr. Fleury found that fasteners corroded over a period of 30 years or more because of interaction between copper sheeting and spikes and bolts in the boat's hull.
Coast Guard concerns
Coast Guard concerns about the El Toro go back at least to 1988, before Joseph C. Lore purchased the boat. At a dry dock inspection at that time, investigators were suspicious about possible weakness in the nails and recommended that some of them be pulled from the planks at its next dry dock inspection, which Chief Moore made in March.
In 1991 and 1992, Lt. j.g. Kyle Patrick McAvoy inspected the El Toro while it was in the water, found fault with the boat's wiring and ordered owner Joseph Lore to replace the electrical system. "The whole electrical system was a mess," he said.
He also noted evidence of a leaking exhaust system that was causing wood above the engine compartment to deteriorate.
Still, he said, the boat was typical. "It wasn't the best I'd ever seen, but it wasn't the worst," he said.
Chief Moore, who has worked as a Coast Guard inspector for more than eight years, said that when he inspected the boat last spring, the faults Lieutenant McAvoy found had been corrected, except for replacing the electrical system. Chief Moore said Mr. Lore was in the process of designing a new wiring system when he met with him.
Scrutiny of fasteners
Much of yesterday's questioning had to do with whether inspectors were sufficiently thorough in their scrutiny of the boat's fasteners, which include bolts, nails and screws.
One Coast Guard inspector, retired Chief Charles R. Collins, testified that investigators should look carefully at fasteners if they are more than 10 years old. The only way to know for sure the condition of the fasteners is to remove them from the wood, he said.
Yet Mr. Collins, who also was present at the inspection of the El Toro in March, said he noticed no problems with the boat's hull.
Chief Moore yesterday stuck by his decision not to pull the fasteners from the planks. Taking the nails from the boards usually results in damage, which the boat owner must pay for, he noted. The Coast Guard has no regulation or policy concerning when to pull fasteners and Chief Moore insisted he had no reason to suspect the fasteners were weak.
'A judgment call'
"It was a judgment call," Chief Moore said.
But several independent marine inspectors said yesterday that inspections of old wooden boats such as the El Toro should include pulling the metal fasteners.
"In my opinion, a visual inspection of just the heads of the fasteners is not adequate," said Tom Lucke, an Eastern Shore marine surveyor. "Sometimes the head can be perfectly good, but the body or shank may be gone."
The exposed part of the fasteners "can look deceptively good. The part you can see is not the part that does the work," said Fred Hecklinger, an Annapolis-based marine surveyor with nearly 20 years' experience.
Coast Guard inspectors do an adequate job inspecting boats for safety items such as life preservers or fire extinguishers, Mr. Hecklinger said.
But, he added: "They just don't seem to know how to look at a vessel and say, 'Wow, this really isn't safe.' I've seen this several times. You'd look at a vessel and say, 'This has been certified?' "
Other surveyors, though, said the Coast Guard inspectors do a good job.
While the Coast Guard did not require the El Toro's owners to pull fasteners for full inspection, it has with other owners. Ed Hartman, owner of 12 passenger boats in Annapolis, said he stopped using wooden boats in 1988 because of the Coast Guard scrutiny.
"They were so tough on me with them, I got rid of them," Mr. Hartman said. "I had to replace so much wood all the time, I couldn't afford to keep them."