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NTSB to embark on another El Faro recovery mission next month

(UODATE: Article includes new information in the 10th paragraph that indicates the current number of settled cases.)

By Steve Bittenbender

Editor, Government Security News

The National Transportation Safety Board announced earlier this week that it will launch another mission in an attempt to retrieve a critical piece of equipment from a cargo ship lost last fall to Hurricane Joaquin in the Caribbean.

NTSB investigators along with representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and Phoenix International will depart for the Bahamas next month to pull up the voyage data recorder from the El Faro. Investigators hope the data recorder can provide information about what happened to the ship and the actions its crew took in its final moments.

The ship, owned and operated by TOTE Maritime, left Jacksonville, FL with 391 cargo containers and 294 trailers containing retail products destined for Puerto Rico. Three hours before the ship departed on Sept. 29. the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for the Caribbean islands. The next day, the ship’s captain communicated with company officials, saying he planned to take the 790-foot ship south of the storm’s projected course.

However, the ship crossed paths with the storm as it reached the Bahamas, with the storm reaching Category 4 status and generating 130 mile-per-hour winds by that point. Michael Davidson, the ship’s captain, last reported on Oct. 1, citing the ship lost propulsion and began to list.

Rescuers from the Coast Guard searched for nearly a week before handing the matter over to the NTSB. All members of the 32-person crew, which included 28 Americans, died.

After the NTSB completed its first recovery effort in mid-November, where they found the hull of the ship and the navigation deck, agency officials decided to make one more effort to locate the recorder. That mission took place nearly six weeks ago, and workers used an underwater drone to locate the recorder, which is the approximate size of a basketball, on the ship’s mast roughly 40 miles east of the Bahamas.

However, they soon realized they were not going to be able to recover the recorder at that time.

“After investigators collaborated in May with scientists and deep water recovery experts, to determine how the VDR could be recovered given its proximity to nearby obstacles, the NTSB contracted with the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage to assist in the recovery effort,” the NTSB said in a statement. “The naval resources participating in the recovery effort include the USNS Apache and CURV-21, a remotely operated underwater vehicle. CURV-21 is the same equipment used to locate the El Faro wreckage in November.”

Officials expect the crew to need four days to reach the recorder’s location and then another five to retrieve the recorder. Once the Apache returns to the U.S., the NTSB will take the recorder to its laboratory to download and review any information available.

In January, TOTE officials announced it had reached a settlement with 10 families of crew members, including the captain’s family. According to court documents, TOTE Maritime will pay survivors of 21 of the 33 who were lost at least $500,000 each, in addition to unspecified amounts for lost wages and other losses. The remaining families still have litigation pending against the company.


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