El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder Recovered from Ocean Floor

The USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) departed today to support the National Transportation Safety Board's efforts to retrieve the voyage data recorder from the site of the sunken cargo ship El Faro.
The USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) departs Virginia Beach, Virginia, Friday, August 5, 2016, to support the National Transportation Safety Board’s mission to retrieve the voyage data recorder from the site of the sunken cargo ship El Faro. Photo: Military Sealift Command

The voyage data recorder from the sunken American cargo ship El Faro was recovered from the ocean floor late Monday evening, capping a 10-month effort to locate and document the El Faro’s wreckage and retrieve the recorder.

The recovery the VDR, a steel-mounted capsule designed to record key navigational data and communications between crewmembers on the ship’s bridge, was announced Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators are hoping the device will help determine what happened in the final hours of El Faro’s voyage and the circumstances leading up to the sinking.

“The recovery of the recorder has the potential to give our investigators greater insight into the incredible challenges that the El Faro crew faced,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart, “but it’s just one component of a very complex investigation. There is still a great deal of work to be done in order to understand how the many factors converged that led to the sinking and the tragic loss of 33 lives.”

The recovery of the VDR caps the 10-month effort to locate and document the wreckage and retrieve the VDR, which has spanned three separate missions and costed $3 million. No further missions to the accident site are planned unless warranted as the investigation continues, the NTSB said.

The 740-foot SS El Faro sank off the Bahamas on October 1, 2015 after sailing into the center of Hurricane Joaquin during a voyage from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 people on board, comprising of 27 American crew members and five Polish contractors, perished in the accident.

Military Sealift Command’s ocean tug USNS Apache departed Virginia Beach, Virginia, Friday on its mission to retrieve the recorder with personnel from the NTSB, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and Phoenix International. After arriving at the accident location on Monday morning, search crews maneuvered CURV-21, a deep ocean remotely operated underwater vehicle, to the VDR’s known location at a depth of about 15,000 feet. Specialized tools were then used to extricate the VDR capsule from the mast structure to which it was attached.

The capsule was hauled to the deck of the ocean tug at about 10:30 pm Monday evening, the NTSB said.

The El Faro voyage data recorder in a fresh water bath aboard the USNS Apache. Photo: NTSB
The El Faro voyage data recorder in a fresh water bath aboard the USNS Apache. Photo: NTSB

The VDR will now be examined at sea by NTSB investigators aboard the USNS Apache to assess the condition of the device and to ensure proper preservation for readout and further examination ashore. The VDR will later be transported to the NTSB’s lab in Washington, D.C. after the Apache returns from sea on or about August 12, 2016. Once at the lab, a team of specialists will audition the recording.

The NTSB says it is not yet known how long it may take to review the data and audio information that may be captured on El Faro’s VDR. While the minimum design requirement for VDRs of this type is for 12 hours of recording, it may contain additional information, according to the NTSB.

As investigators examine the device, additional photo- and video-documentation of the El Faro wreck and debris field will be completed Tuesday concluding NTSB’s activities at the site.