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NTSB transcript details the final hours of El Faro

By Steve Bittenbender
Editor, Government Security News

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board released more than 500 pages of transcripts detailing the communications between the El Faro’s crew in its final hours before the freighter sunk in the Caribbean as it met Hurricane Joaquin.

Among the details the pages provide include concerns by crewmembers regarding the route taken and the weather reports that were used by the captain in an attempt to maneuver the El Faro away from the Category Four hurricane near the Bahamas.

The last communication came just minutes after the captain ordered the 33 member crew to abandon ship just after 7:40 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2015.

The transcripts indicate that things took a turn for the worst in the final three hours as the ship began listing at an angle that the ship’s engineer said he’d never seen before. Flooding soon developed, with the ship losing propulsion about a half-hour later.

“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,” according to a summary produced by the NTSB. “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.”

The NTSB also released transcripts from the interviews its team conducted as part of its ongoing investigation into the incident. However, in its statement, the NTSB considered the information revealed by the voyage data recorder highly important. The transcript produced by investigators, the longest ever by the NTSB, took more than 1,100 work hours to produce.

“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,” the NTSB said in its release. “About 10 hours of audio was determined to be relevant to the investigation and therefore transcribed by the VDR audio transcript group.”

The NTSB did not release any analysis, conclusions or recommendations from its review of the VDR.

“Providing the docket affords the public the opportunity to see what information has been gathered about the accident,” the NTSB said. “Any analysis, findings, recommendations, or probable cause determinations related to the accident will be issued by the NTSB at a later date.”

The ship, owned and operated by TOTE Maritime, left Jacksonville, FL on Sept. 29, 2015 with 391 cargo containers and 294 trailers containing retail products destined for Puerto Rico. Three hours before the ship departed, 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.

After the NTSB completed its first recovery effort in November 2015, 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 in mid-April, 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. Another mission led to the successful recovery on Aug. 8.


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