New mission to recover El Faro data recorder begins

Mission to launch in August for Jacksonville-based cargo ship's VDR

A Navy vessel left Little Creek, Virginia, Friday headed for Caribbean waters near the Bahamas to make another effort to retrieve a key piece of evidence in the sinking of Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro.

The Jacksonville-based cargo ship sailing to Puerto Rico sank last fall during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew members on board died.

A previous mission located the navigation bridge of the ship 3 miles below the surface, but searchers were not able to find the mast or the data recorder. The crew of the USNS Apache is taking specialized deep-water retrieval equipment and seemed optimistic that they can retrieve the ship's black box. 

"It's quite a complicated and complex mission," said Brian Curtis, acting director of the National Transportation Safety Board's Office of Marine Safety.

Curtis said it will take about four days for the Apache to get to the location where the previous mission located the data recorder. The crew will spend about two to four days on site trying to retrieve it from from the ocean floor.

Curtis said the data on the device would have a lot of information including, navigational data and radar information from when El Faro encountered Hurricane Joaquin.

"The requirement is that a VDR (of) this type has 12 hours of audio files in the wheelhouse," Curtis said. "So certainly, it would be a big benefit where there are no survivors for us to find out more the circumstances of the sinking of the vessel."

Those files could include calls from Capt. Michael Davidson as the ship lost power. Family members have said they hope the VDR is recovered so they will have a better idea of what their loved ones went through before the ship sank.

"I do think they're appreciative of the effort," Cursi said. "There's a lot that goes into it, but getting the VDR back will be critical in finding out what exactly went on prior to the sinking."

Apache's mission is scheduled to last about two weeks and, hopefully bring the data recorded directly to Mayport. The NTSB is confident it will be able to get everything done in that time frame.