The captain of the doomed El Faro warned that the "clock was ticking" as his cargo ship took on water in an Atlantic hurricane that would eventually sink the vessel, a U.S. Coast Guard panel heard on Saturday.
Captain Michael Davidson pleaded for help as his ship, operated by Tote Services, sailed into the path of Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas, according to a recording of his final calls played at the hearing.
He told an on-shore call center of a "maritime emergency," saying water breached the hull, entering three holds.
Soon afterwards, contact with the ship was broken, and Davidson and 32 others were lost at sea. The sinking ranks as the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged cargo ship in more than three decades.
Recordings of the calls, made last October, were posted on the website of WOKV, a Jacksonville radio station.
Images from the wreck:
El Faro cargo ship sinks
El Faro captain's pleas for help before ship sank played at hearing
El Faro, provided by TOTE Maritime Services
ROCKLAND, ME - OCTOBER 5: John Gerry, a cousin of Dylan Meklin, is overcome with emotion after a candlelight vigil in honor of Meklin at the Fishermen's Memorial in Rockland Harbor Monday, October 5, 2015. Meklin, along with three other Mainers and 29 other souls, were aboard El Faro, a cargo ship which is believe to have sunk in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. 'I played football with him and everything,' said Gerry. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
ROCKLAND, ME - OCTOBER 5: A candlelight vigil was held at the Fishermen's Memorial in Rockland Harbor for Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland, and Danielle Randolph, 34, also of Rockland, Monday, October 5, 2015. The pair are among four Mainers and 29 other souls who were aboard El Faro, a cargo ship which is believe to have sunk in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
CASTINE, ME - OCTOBER 6: Travis Emerson, right, comforts Alexi Galley after a vigil for the crew members of the cargo ship El Faro, which is believed to have sunk off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. Four of the ship's crew, Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Michael Holland of Wilton, Danielle Randolph of Rockland and Dylan Meklin, both of Rockland, are all graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
U.S.C.G. Cpt. Mark Fedor, right, and Lt. Cmd. Gabe Somma brief the media on the search for survivors of the cargo ship El Faro that sank during Hurricane Joaquin at the Coast Guard Station at the Opa Locka Airport on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Walter Michot/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
OPA LOCKA, FL - OCTOBER 05: U.S. Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor (L) and Lt. Commander Gabe Somma walk away after speaking to the media, at U.S. Coast Guard Station Miami, about the sinking of the 790-foot container ship El Faro on October 5, 2015 in Opa Locka, Florida. The Coast Guard has concluded that the ship most likely sank after encountering Hurricane Joaquin last Thursday, but Coast Guard cutters and aircraft and a U.S. Navy plane continued searching for the 33 missing crew members. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
#BreakingNews @USCGSoutheast C-130 just lands, reports 225 SqMi debris field of styrofoam, wood, cargo, other items. http://t.co/4us2EP4L4C
#BreakingNews: @USCGSoutheast MH-60 refueling at sea as search crews cover 70K+ sqNM in the search for 790' #ElFaro http://t.co/6ICMmxraO2
#BreakingNews @USCGSoutheast Video Release: Recovery of #ElFaro life ring. http://t.co/X0RfPsheTM
#BreakingNews: @USCGSoutheast search for #ElFaro has covered more than 30K sqNM. http://t.co/hBlBWAl0GK http://t.co/9H4PVf4wyM
#BreakingNews @USCGSoutheast aircrew searching IVO #hurricane #Joaquin for container ship w/ crew of 33. http://t.co/cpEfzRi5G1
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The U.S. Coast Guard began hearings this week to investigate the sinking. Executives of Tote Services have testified that ship captains have full responsibility for deciding when it is safe to sail and on setting the route.
Tote officials said it was Davidson's call to depart Jacksonville with a storm brewing in the Atlantic, and said they were not closely monitoring the El Faro's cargo run to Puerto Rico as a tropical storm strengthened into Joaquin.
On the phone call to shore, Davidson sounds frustrated with an operator who asked him to spell the name of the boat, telling her "the clock is ticking."
In a voicemail to Tote's "designated person ashore" John Lawrence, Davidson said that he had had a "navigational incident" and a "pretty good list," referring the water in the holds, and that while the crew was safe he needed to talk to Lawrence.
Lawrence said that he had called Davidson back quickly, and the veteran Maine mariner sounded calm, according to WOKV. Lawrence then called the Coast Guard.
Family members of dead crew members have sued Tote in federal court.
After the 790-foot (241-meter) vessel was lost, the company bought a subscription for a bad-weather routing system for its ships, Tote President Philip Greene, testified this week.
The Coast Guard's hearings continue through next Thursday.
The investigation could result in civil charges. If evidence of criminal activity is found, the Coast Guard will turn it over to the Justice Department.