NTSB Abandons Search for El Faro’s Missing Voyage Data Recorder

SS El Faro. Photo: Tote Maritime
SS El Faro. Photo: Tote Maritime

The National Transportation Safety Board says it has completed its documentation of the wreck of the cargo ship El Faro and the associated debris field, but the vessel’s voyage data recorder (VDR) has not been located.

No further search missions for the VDR are planned, the NTSB said.

“Over the years we’ve completed many investigations without the aid of recorders and other investigative tools,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “While it is disappointing that the voyage data recorder was not located, we are hopeful that we’ll be able to determine the probable cause of this tragedy and the factors that may have contributed to it.”

The 790-foot ship went missing on October 1 during Hurricane Joaquin as it sailed on its regular route from Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wreck of the vessel was located Oct. 31 in about 15,000 feet of water in the vicinity of its last known position near Crooked Island, Bahamas. The ship is mostly intact and oriented in an upright position, with its stern buried in approximately 30 feet of sediment, the NTSB has said.

The wreck of the El Faro was initially located using side-scan sonar towed by the contracted U.S. Navy tug USNS Apache and was later confirmed on November 1 when investigators were able to view video of the wreck obtained from CURV-21, a remotely operated vehicle capable of deep sea searches.

The NTSB said that the video revealed that the navigation bridge structure and the deck below it had separated from the ship. The missing structure included the mast and its base where the voyage data recorder was mounted.

On November 11, the navigation bridge was found but neither the mast nor the VDR was found in the vicinity, the NTSB said.

The NTSB said Monday that after five more days of searching using the CURV-21 ROV, it was determined that the VDR could not be located.

“The search and video documentation efforts of El Faro were completed on Nov. 15,” the NTSB said in its update Monday. “No further search missions are planned.”

We are told that the NTSB will not be releasing photos or video of the wreck for several more weeks. 

In early October, the NTSB contracted with the U.S. Navy to locate the missing ship, document the wreckage and debris field, and if possible, recover the voyage data recorder.

Like black boxes carried on aircraft, VDRs continuously collect key data from various sensors and systems onboard a ship and help investigators identify the cause of an accident.  

The NTSB launched its investigation into the sinking of the El Faro on October 5th after floating debris from the vessel was located by Coast Guard searcher and rescue crews.

All 33 crew members were lost in the sinking.

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