Mission to Recover El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder to Launch from Virginia

The Navy tug USNS Apache. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Navy tug USNS Apache. Photo: U.S. Navy

The National Transportation Safety Board’s delayed third mission to the wreckage of the El Faro was scheduled to launch Friday with investigators hoping to retrieve the sunken cargo ship’s voyage data recorder.

The Military Sealift Command’s fleet ocean tug USNS Apache was scheduled to launch from Virginia Beach, Virginia on Friday and arrive at the accident site around August 9. Along with the NTSB, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, and Phoenix International are joining the VDR recovery effort, using CURV-21, a deep ocean remotely operated underwater vehicle to retrieve the VDR and conduct additional wreckage documentation.

The mission was initially scheduled to launch in early July but was postponed to August due to the availability of resources needed for the mission. 

“We’re hopeful that the information contained in the voyage data recorder will provide insights into the circumstances of the ship’s sinking,” said Brian Curtis, Acting Director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety.

The VDR in relation to the mast structure to which it is still attached. Photo: NTSB
El Faro’s VDR seen on the seabed at a depth of 15,000 feet off the coast of the Bahamas. Photo: NTSB

The U.S.-flagged cargo ship SS El Faro sank during Hurricane Joaquin Oct. 1, 2015 with the loss of all 33 people on board. In October and November of 2015, the NTSB conducted an initial search mission to locate the vessel and conduct an initial survey of the debris field. During the initial search, crews were able to locate the wreckage near the vessel’s the last known position, but later discovered that El Faro’s navigation bridge had been torn off and the VDR was missing. The data collected during that mission was used by investigators to plot “high probability” search zones for the second mission in April, which resulted in the finding of the mast and VDR about 450 meters from the main part of the wreck.

The wreckage, including the VDR and mast, is in approximately 15,000 feet of water, about 41 miles (36 nautical miles) northeast of Crooked Islands, Bahamas.

USNS Apache is expected to arrive at Mayport, Florida, between August 16 and August 20, following completion of the mission.

The cost for this mission is expected to be $500,000, bringing the total for the three missions to approximately $3 million, the NTSB said.

The VDR is considered a key piece of evidence of the investigation into what exactly caused the sinking of the American cargo ship.

The device records key pieces of information such as audio from microphones on the bridge, VHF radio communications, images captured from the onboard radar every 15 seconds, and Automatic Identification System traffic broadcasts whenever possible. It also records key parametric data about the vessel, such as date, time, GPS position, speed, and heading.

Once the VDR is recovered, assuming it will be, it will be brought to an NTSB laboratory in Virginia where investigators will examine the device and download and analyze any information it may contain.

As of 12 p.m. local time on Friday the USNS Apache was still showing as moored near Norfolk, according to AIS data.