Federal investigators have released new details about El Faro’s final hours after successfully pulling information from the sunken ship’s voyage data recorder.
National Transportation Safety Board technicians obtained some 26 hours of audio, weather and navigational data from the voyage data recorder, or VDR, which was recovered Aug. 8 nearly 15,000 feet under water.
The VDR began recording at about 0530 on Sept. 30, soon after the 791-foot ship left Jacksonville for Puerto Rico, according to an agency news release. A day later, the device captured crew discussing the ship’s loss of propulsion and list caused by flooding. Capt. Michael Davidson’s voice was among those identified by investigators.
“The vessel’s loss of propulsion was mentioned on the bridge audio about 6:13 a.m.,” the NTSB said. “Also captured was the master speaking on the telephone, notifying shoreside personnel of the vessel’s critical situation, and preparing to abandon ship if necessary.”
“The master ordered abandon ship and sounded the alarm about 7:30 a.m., Oct. 1, 2015. The recording ended about 10 minutes later when the El Faro was about 39 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas,” the NTSB release continued.
El Faro sank last Oct. 1 east of Crooked Island in the Bahamas after losing engine power as Hurricane Joaquin approached. The U.S.-flagged ship operated by a TOTE subsidiary had 33 people on board and none survived.
The incident spurred a wide range of theories about the ship’s final minutes and its ultimate demise. Some maritime experts suggested the stricken vessel abruptly capsized, while others believe hurricane-force winds and strong waves tore the superstructure from the hull with some crew inside. Most agreed, however, that recovering the VDR was necessary to determine what happened.
Based on photos released by the NTSB, there is some evidence the crew tried to abandon ship using ropes to lower themselves into the water. However, it’s unclear if the crew had time to follow Davidson’s order. Only one crewmember’s remains were found during the massive search last October but they were not recovered.
Based on the NTSB release, the VDR unit and its “memory module” were in good shape. Still, some of its contents might not be recoverable.
“The quality of the recording is degraded because of high levels of background noise,” the NTSB said. “There are times during the recording when the content of crew discussion is difficult to determine, at other times the content can be determined using audio filtering.”
NTSB specialists are continuing their efforts to pull more useful information from the device. The agency plans to release a detailed transcript but did not say when that would occur.