RALEIGH, N.C. - More than a week before Hurricane Sandy became a superstorm that would zero in on the U.S. Northeast, while it was just a tropical depression bouncing around the Caribbean, a captain headed out to sea. The HMS Bounty sailed dead into the path of Hurricane Sandy.
Amid 30-foot (9-meter) waves, the diesel engines died and the ship took on water. The crew eventually abandoned ship, and the Bounty sank off the U.S. coast on Oct. 29.
One crew member died. The captain was never found.
Next week, a U.S. safety panel will open a hearing into the fatal sinking of the Bounty — a replica 18th-century tall ship built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty" and used in other seafaring dramas.
"It's really the first time the public will get a better understanding of what happened," said Ernest DelBuono, a retired Coast Guard commander who once inspected U.S. vessels. "This is a unique case because the person who probably everybody would like to hear from was a casualty. The captain is dead."
Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, is presumed dead. Claudene Christian, 42, was confirmed dead. The Coast Guard rescued the other 14 crew members from two lifeboats while a strobe light atop the vessel's mast identified the wreck.
The hearings are an opportunity to hear from survivors and people who spoke to the captain before the ship left New London, Connecticut, for St. Petersburg, Florida, said DelBuono, now a crisis management consultant.
The hearing's lead officer is scheduled to start by questioning the Bounty's operators, the HMS Bounty Organization. The organization's director, Tracie Simonin, did not respond to messages last week. She said in October that though Walbridge was aware of the hurricane's power, he thought he could steer clear of the worst.
The ship's Facebook page acknowledged the risk in the days before the sinking. "This will be a tough voyage," read one posting.
More than a day before the Bounty was lost, another post read: "Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty's current voyage is a calculated decision ... The fact of the matter is ... A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!"
Some of the most dramatic testimony could come during the three-plus days designated for Bounty crew members, who did not return messages from The Associated Press.
Crew member Dan Cleveland has told ABC he had been through two other hurricanes aboard the Bounty with Walbridge, and "the ship was in great shape." But with dead engines and the ship taking on water, the crew waited for a relatively calm spell to clamber onto deck to abandon ship, crew member John Svendsen said.
"That was a very difficult decision," he said.
Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Nyx Cangemi said a final report could still be months or years away.
Though the hearing isn't a criminal proceeding, any evidence of wrongdoing would be referred to federal prosecutors, Cangemi said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.
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