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NTSB ends search efforts for El Faro recorder; officials still hopeful to find the cause for its demise

Christopher A. Hart, NTSB

By Steve Bittenbender

The National Transportation Safety Board announced on Monday that it has completed the video documentation of the wreckage of the cargo ship El Faro, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean last month near the Bahamas as Hurricane Joaquin battered the area.

However, the search efforts were unable to turn up the one item investigators hoped would shed some light on the final moments aboard the ship – the voyage data recorder.

“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.”

Officials had been optimistic to find the recorder after crews used sonar equipment and an unmanned submarine to confirm the location of the ship. They announced they had found the vessel on Nov. 1 in about 15,000 feet of water near where it was last reported. However, video from the sub indicated that the ship’s navigation deck and the mast that held the data recorder became separated from the ship.

The NTSB, working in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, spent two additional weeks looking for the remainder of the ship. Last week, searchers were able to find the bridge, but neither the mast nor the recorder were with it.

Investigators officially ended their search on Nov. 15 when they completed video documentation of the debris field. No further search operations are planned, according to the board.

The 790-foot ship carried a crew of 33. None of which were found by the U.S. Coast Guard, which coordinated a search covering more than 183,000 square nautical miles over seven days. The NTSB took over the operation at that point, using the Navy’s U.S.N.S. Apache tugboat and its Orion sonar system, which can conduct scans to depths of 20,000 feet, to search for wreckage.

Owned and operated by TOTE Maritime, the 790-foot long El Faro, built in 1974, received its last Coast Guard inspection in March. The company also conducted an internal safety audit just prior to that inspection. The ship departed from Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 29 with San Juan, P.R., as its scheduled destination.

According to the NTSB, the El Faro left about three hours after a hurricane warning has been issued by the National Hurricane Center. On the day before it sank, the El Faro’s captain e-mailed a TOTE safety officer to confirm he planned to take a route to the south of Joaquin’s predicted path.

The El Faro was last heard from on the morning of Oct. 1 as it had taken on water due to the rough seas created by Hurricane Joaquin. At that time, Joaquin pounded the Caribbean nation with winds of up to 130 miles an hour, making it a powerful Category 4 hurricane.


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