NTSB Releases El Faro VDR Bridge Audio Transcript; Opens Investigation Docket

stern of the El Faro as seen from underwater ROV
The stern of the El Faro is shown on the ocean floor taken from an underwater video camera on November 1, 2015. Courtesy National Transportation Safety Board/Handout

The 500-page transcript from the El Faro’s voyage data recorder bridge audio was released Tuesday along with four other factual reports added to the NTSB’s El Faro investigation docket as part of the agency’s ongoing investigation into the maritime tragedy.

The U.S.-flagged cargo ship El Faro sank Oct. 1, 2015 off Crooked Island, Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, resulting in the loss of all 33 crew members. 

Entered into the docket were factual reports from the Electronic Data Group, Meteorology Group, Survival Factors Group, Engineering Group and the Voyage Data Recorder Audio Transcript Group, the NTSB said Tuesday.

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart was joined by the agency’s Director of the Office of Research and Engineering, James Ritter, and Brian Curtis, Director of the Office of Marine Safety, in a press briefing in which they described the documents within the docket and provided highlights of the information contained within the docket.

According to the NTSB, the Engineering Group Factual Report contains information about the El Faro’s machinery system, a description and history of the vessel, maintenance histories for the plant, survey and inspection information, the vessel’s safety management system, and information about the training and experience of the El Faro’s engineering staff.

The Survival Factors Group Factual Report contains information about the U.S. Coast Guard’s search efforts, the El Faro’s survival equipment, crew preparedness, lifeboat standards and regulations, and information about distress transmissions.

The Electronic Data Group Factual Report provides a system overview and discussion of data recovered from the El Faro’s voyage data recorder and other onboard electronic systems. The ship’s voyage data recorder captured 26 hours of data in 11 parameters leading up to the sinking of the vessel. The 11 parameters were: Bridge Audio; Date; Time; VDR power supply status; Position and other GPS data; Heading; Course; Speed; Rate of Turn; Wind data; and Automatic Identification System data.

The Meteorology Group Factual Report provides information about what meteorological information was available to the El Faro’s crew.

The Voyage Data Recorder Audio Transcript Group Factual Report contains the transcript of the discernable and relevant bridge audio captured by the VDR. Members of the group included the NTSB, the U.S. Coast Guard and Tote Services – the owner of the El Faro.

Graphic released by the NTSB Dec. 13, 2016, depicts the locations of the El Faro Oct. 1, 2015, relative to the locations of Hurricane Joaquin.
Graphic released by the NTSB Dec. 13, 2016, depicts the locations of the El Faro Oct. 1, 2015, relative to the locations of Hurricane Joaquin.

Bridge Audio Recording

The NTSB says it considers the information captured in the VDR’s bridge audio recording critical to determining the events leading up to the loss of the El Faro along with its 33 crew members. The NTSB characterized the bridge audio as “poor quality” and containing high levels of background noise; however, this is not considered unusual, the NTSB said.

There were six microphones positioned throughout the El Faro’s bridge, according to the NTSB. Extensive digital audio filtering was necessary to enhance the audio. The entire 26-hour recording was reviewed many times, with some statements reviewed more than 100 times by the VDR audio transcript group to ensure they understood what was being said in the recording. About 10 hours of audio was determined to be relevant to the investigation and therefore transcribed by the VDR audio transcript group. T

The transcript required more than 1,100 work hours to complete. The transcript report is more than 500 pages and is the longest transcript ever produced by the NTSB.

The following is a summary of the characterization of the bridge audio transcript provided by the NTSB:

The bridge audio recording began about 5:37 a.m., Sept. 30, 2015, roughly eight hours after the El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida.

The first recorded conversation about the forecasted weather was captured the morning of Sept. 30, between the captain and chief mate, who agreed on a course diversion they believed would keep them sufficiently clear of the eye of Hurricane Joaquin. There were multiple conversations regarding weather and route planning throughout the day and evening of Sept. 30.

The captain departed the bridge at about 8 p.m. Sept. 30, and returned at about 4:10 a.m. Oct 1. At about 4:37 a.m. the chief mate received a phone call from the chief engineer regarding the vessel’s list and engine oil levels. This appears to be the first recorded conversation about these issues. The information was related to the captain. The alternate chief engineer is heard stating at about 5:12 a.m. that he’s never seen the ship with such a list.

At about 5:43 a.m. the captain takes a phone call and indicates there is a problem in the number three hold of the ship and sends the chief mate to investigate. They discuss suspected flooding over UHF radio, which appears to be the first recorded conversation about a flooding condition on the ship.

The captain indicates at about 6:13 a.m. that the ship lost propulsion. Numerous conversations are heard throughout the remainder of the recording about the ship’s flooding condition, attempts to rectify the ship’s list and attempts to regain propulsion.

The second mate began formatting a GMDSS distress message at about 6:32 a.m. as directed by the captain. At 7:07 a.m. the captain notified Tote Service’s designated shoreside representative of the critical situation and that he was preparing to send an electronic distress signal. The captain instructed the second mate to send the distress message at about 7:13 a.m. The captain gave the command to sound the ship’s general alarm at about 7:27 a.m. and about two minutes later the second mate exclaimed there were containers in the water and the captain gave the command to sound the abandon ship alarm. About four minutes later the captain relayed over the UHF radio to put the life rafts in the water.

The bridge audio recording ended at about 7:40 a.m. Oct. 1, 2015, with the captain and one of the helmsmen still present on the bridge.

The full bridge audio transcript and other factual reports are available online in the docket at http://go.usa.gov/x8p9j

Here’s a link directly to the bridge audio transcript: LINK

WARNING: The VDR bridge audio transcript contains details from the final moments before the El Faro sank. It may be difficult or inappropriate for some readers. 

The National Transportation Safety Board stresses that the public docket contains only factual information collected by NTSB investigators. It does not provide analysis, findings, recommendations or probable cause determinations, and as such, no conclusions about how or why an accident occurred should be drawn from the docket. Providing the docket affords the public the opportunity to see what information has been gathered about the accident. Any analysis, findings, recommendations, or probable cause determinations related to the accident will be issued by the NTSB at a later date.

El Faro: Event Summary

On Thursday, October 1, 2015, about 07:15 a.m. eastern daylight time, the US Coast Guard received distress alerts from the 737-foot-long roll-on/roll-off cargo ship El Faro. The US flagged ship, owned by Sea Star Line, LLC, and operated by TOTE Services (TOTE), was 36 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas, and close to the eye of Hurricane Joaquin. The ship was en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with a cargo of containers and vehicles. Just minutes before the distress alerts, the El Faro master had called TOTE’s designated person ashore and reported that the ship was experiencing some flooding. He said the crew had controlled the ingress of water but the ship was listing 15 degrees and had lost propulsion. The Coast Guard and TOTE were unable to reestablish communication with the ship. Twenty- eight US crewmembers and five Polish workers were on board.