Studying El Faro's sister ship for clues in disappearance

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting its second full day of investigation into the wreck of the El Faro, the cargo ship that disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean Last Thursday after reporting mechanical issues.

The NTSB hopes to recover the ship from the ocean but said that part of its investigation into its disappearance will be looking at its sister ship, the El Yunque.

The El Yunque returned to port in Blount Island Thursday where the NTSB will begin inspecting it.

"Yes, the sister ship of El Faro is called El Yunque. A key part of our investigation is to look at this ship, look at the exact operations, look at the route. Also look at all the mechanics and how the ship was built. It's very useful to our investigation to use the sister ship that's almost identical to El Faro," NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said.

Maritime Lawyer Rod Sullivan said the two ships aren't identical but have a lot in common, which could be helpful to the NTSB and may also hold the key to answers that family members and the NTSB are looking for.

"You want to see whether it has any hairline cracks or wells, whether it has any cracks in the shell plating. Are there any places where the hull has been overstressed?" Sullivan said.

He said finding these things on the El Yunque, which was built to the exact same design and in the same shipyard, may help the NTSB understand what kind of condition the El Faro was in when it set sail Last Tuesday.

"There are places on a ship which are stress points. You want to go to those stress points, and you want to closely test them. There are ultrasound tests you can do. There are dye penetrant tests you can do. There are a lot of ways you can test if the steel is overly stressed," Sullivan said.

Sullivan, a former Maritime Marine turned Maritime lawyer, said that dye penetrant is sprayed on the metal, which is then absorbed. He said after putting a developer on the metal, if there are any cracks, they'll show up as a line. He said not only is it important to find answers about the El Faro, but to ensure the safety of crew members on the El Yunque.

"This is a ship that's about 40 years old, has been exposed to a lot of the same stresses as the El Faro, and if the El Faro broke up as a result of heavy weather, the El Yunque would be at the same risk of the same thing happening in heavy weather," Sullivan said.

News4Jax did get hold of reports of incidents from both the El Faro and the El Yunque, all of which happened in 2011.

In April 2011, the El Faro temporarily lost power when the generator breaker tripped and main propulsion was lost. Engineers later found that it was caused by a severed wire.

In August 2011, the El Faro lost forward motion because of a brief grounding at Baltimore harbor though no damage was found.

Later that same month, while moored at Baltimore Harbor, Hurricane Irene created severe conditions and a possible tornado caused the mooring lines to snap, causing the ship to drift away from the pier where is struck a cement block causing minor damage.

Finally, in January 2011, the sister ship, the El Yunque, lost water to its boiler, triggering a shutdown of the boiler fires, causing the ship to lose propulsion for three hours.

The El Faro was built in 1975, and after two decades of hauling cargo in the Northwest, it was refitted in 2006 and moved to Jacksonville.

The NTSB plans on being in Jacksonville for another week or so, finishing up its onsite investigation, then it will start putting those results to paper.

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.