JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Video of sunken cargo ship El Faro released by the National Transportation Safety Board reveals some key evidence into the last minutes of the crew members' lives, according to a north Florida maritime attorney.
El Faro sank Oct. 1 after losing engine power and getting caught in Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm, while sailing from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. There were 33 mariners aboard and no survivors.
Families of the crew members have filed multiple lawsuits against the El Faro’s owners, TOTE Maritime, alleging wrongful death and negligence. They argue the ship should never have tried to outrun a hurricane, and that the decision to do so was motivated by money.
TOTE Maritime has asked a federal judge to limit or release its liability, and company officials have claimed the El Faro was maintained properly and in good condition. The company says it does not comment on individual lawsuits.
Attorney Rod Sullivan said taking a closer look at the NTSB's underwater video of the wreckage leads him to believe that the 33 crew members on board had time to try to escape before the ship sank.
The NTSB used remote-controlled underwater vehicles to locate and search the ship some 15,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.
Tom Roth-Roffy, the lead investigator for the NTSB, told The Associated Press that a weeks-long search found one of the El Faro’s missing decks, but not the mast where the ship’s voyage data recorder was attached. The agency on Sunday released the first images of the ship in its final resting place.
“There were no human remains found whatsoever, and no personal effects whatsoever,” Roth-Roffy said. “I think we found one boot.”
The images of the sunken ship show a breach in the El Faro’s hull and its main navigation tower missing.
Roth-Roffy says crews did locate one of the missing decks about a half-mile away from the main ship. Images show it resting on the seafloor, its windows broken out.
The ship’s stern, or rear end, was buried more deeply than the bow, or front, Roth-Roffy said.
Investigators are still piecing events of the sinking together, but at this point they’ve ruled out a major structure failure as a cause of the El Faro’s sinking, Roth-Roffy said.
“The issue with the detachment of the upper two decks, we’re looking at that carefully,” he said.
Roth-Roffy said the NTSB would need to launch a second search of the wreckage 15,000 feet below the sea if it wants to find the data recorder, which would have recorded the captain’s final transmissions. They are still determining if and when such a search would occur.
Even without the data recorder, Sullivan, a maritime expert, said he has a vague idea of what could have happened in the last moments before the ship sank. He said freeze frames pulled from the video reveal evidence of the crew's attempted escape from the ship.
“What I think I’m seeing here, I see people desperately trying to get off a sinking ship and onto their life rafts and had some time to do it, and unfortunately didn’t survive,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan pointed to a four-by-four piece of wood tied and hung over the stern of the boat with some web strapping attached. He said that in all likelihood as the ship was sinking the frantic crew members used straps to lower each other down to a lifeboat that had been dropped into the high seas.
“The problem with jumping off a vessel at sea is that you don’t know if you’re going to land close to the life boat, and therefore lowering yourself makes it more likely you’ll get yourself in,” Sullivan said.
A picture of a pilot ladder also caught Sullivan's eye. He said it too was likely used to lower crew members to the ocean as the ship sank.
He said that evidence could be critical for the victims' families and their lawyers, who may soon be able to say with certainty that the victims suffered in horror.
“If I’ve interpreted this correctly, this means the crew had a substantial period of time where they were in fear for their lives, and they were in terror,” Sullivan said. “That would increase their claim for pre- death pain and suffering.”
Roth-Roffy said all of the ship’s cargo containers except for four were gone. The El Faro was carrying automobiles.
Determining what happened to the ship will be more difficult without the data recorder, but NTSB’s investigators have said they are still confident they’ll be able to find answers.
Sullivan said the fact that the vessel landed upright on the ocean bottom reveals that El Faro didn't capsize but instead took on water and quickly sank.
After suspending their search for the data recorder in November, Roth-Roffy says they may go back to search again. The recorder was attached to the ship’s main mast, a 35-foot tall structure that crews haven’t yet located.
The data recorder charts the date, time and speed of a marine vessel, and also records conversations on the bridge that could include key decision-making between captain and crew.
While recovering a small piece of equipment at such depth is difficult, there is precedent.
The black box of the Air France jetliner that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris was found in about 12,800 feet of water.
Crews also retrieved the black box of a South African Airways airplane that crashed into the Indian Ocean in 1987 in more than 15,000 feet of water.
The NTSB plans on releasing more video of El Faro's underwater wreckage in February.