NTSB: New Mission Needed to Recover El Faro Data Recorder

El Faro's VDR seen in the sand at a depth of 15,000 feet off the Bahamas. Photo credit: NTSB
A close up of el Faro’s VDR seen in the sand at a depth of 15,000 feet off the Bahamas. Photo credit: NTSB

Investigators will need to launch a new mission to recover the El Faro’s voyage data recorder found Tuesday at a depth of 15,000 off the Bahamas.

The NTSB made the announcement Wednesday after determining that recovery cannot be accomplished with the equipment currently available aboard the research vessel Atlantis given the VDR’s proximity to the mast and other obstructions,

Video and photographs revealed that the VDR appears to remain attached to a steel beam connected to the mast structure.

“Now that we have been able to see just how the VDR is oriented relative to the mast structure, it’s clear that we’re going to need specialized deep-water salvage recovery equipment in order to bring it up,” said Brian Curtis, Acting Director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety. “Extracting a recorder capsule attached to a four-ton mast under 15,000 feet of water presents formidable challenges, but we’re going to do everything that is technically feasible to get that recorder into our lab.”

The VDR in relation to the mast structure to which it is still attached. Photo: NTSB
The VDR in relation to the mast structure to which it is still attached. Photo: NTSB

Although there is not yet a confirmed timeframe for the launch of the VDR retrieval effort, investigators are hopeful that the logistics can be coordinated so that the mission can be completed in the next several months, the NTSB said in a statement Wednesday.

The current mission will continue to gather imagery of the El Faro hull and debris field until successfully completed. Atlantis is expected to depart the site April 30 and arrive in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, May 5.

In October and November of 2015, the NTSB conducted an initial search mission to locate the sunken vessel and conduct an initial survey of the debris field. The data collected during that mission was used by investigators to plot “high probability” search zones for the current mission, which proved reliable and resulted in the location of the mast and VDR in one of the zones.

The NTSB announced Tuesday that the search team, which involved federal investigators and a team of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, located the El Faro’s missing voyage data recorder in 15,000 feet of water about 41 miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas.

26653545116_6b759bb539_k
A map of the El Faro wreckage and location of the VDR. Credit: NTSB/WHOI

The find is likely going to be a major breakthrough in the investigation into the loss of the American cargo, assuming the VDR can be recovered and data about the ship’s final voyage can be retrieved from the device.

The 790-foot, U.S.-flagged, cargo ship sank October 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin while sailing from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 crewmembers aboard were killed in the accident.

The wreck of the vessel was first located on October 31, 2015 in about 15,000 feet of water in the vicinity of its last known position near Crooked Island, Bahamas, but surveys of the ship showed that the navigation bridge structure and the deck below it had been separated. Later on November 11, the navigation bridge was found but neither the mast nor the VDR was found in the vicinity. About a week later, the NTSB announced that it was abandoning the search for the VDR, describing the failed mission as disappointing.

A close up view of El Faro navigation bridge, which was found detached from the rest of the ship. Photo: NTSB
A close up view of El Faro navigation bridge, which was found detached from the rest of the ship. Photo: NTSB

In February, after sitting through two weeks of Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearings, the NTSB said it would launch a second mission to survey the ship and locate the missing VDR.

“The voyage data recorder may hold vital information about the challenges encountered by the crew in trying to save the ship,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart when announcing the mission. “Getting that information could be very helpful to our investigation.”

A file photo shows the El Faro's voyage data recorder capsule on top of El Faro navigation bridge. Photo: NTSB
A file photo shows the El Faro’s voyage data recorder capsule on top of El Faro navigation bridge. Photo: NTSB

Voyage data recorders such as the one mounted on the El Faro is capable of recording conversations and sounds on the navigation bridge, which could provide investigators with important evidence as they seek to understand the sequence of events that led to the sinking.