JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The voyage data recorder of the sunken cargo ship El Faro, which was pulled from the ocean floor off the Bahamas earlier this week, arrived Friday morning at Naval Station Mayport, and investigators said it it appears to be largely intact.
All 33 crew members on board the 790-foot Jacksonville-based ship died when the ship sank Oct. 1 after it lost propulsion and got caught in a hurricane while on its way to Puerto Rico.
The "black box" was located in April near the wreckage three miles below the surface. The USNS Apache was outfitted with special equipment with a remotely operated vehicle to retrieve the VDR, and brought it to the surface Monday night, the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman said.
"We will do a thorough, comprehensive report," Brian Curtis, acting director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety, said after the Apache arrived at Mayport and the VDR was prepared to be shipped to Washington for analysis. "Once that's done, we are still collecting factual information. Eventually we will get to analyzing all of that data. After that, we may will produce recommendations to prevent this type of accident from recurring."
Curtis said the crews had to handle the VDR very delicately as they brought it up and preparing it for transfer to the lab. He said they are optimistic there will be valuable information on it.
The device is designed to hold 12 hours of recordings from the bridge, as well as navigational data, but NTSB said it's possible there could be more than that. The NTSB said some preliminary data could have some information to release in two weeks.
"Visually, it didn't show any damage, but that doesn't mean much because we are more interested in what's inside and whether we can access the files," Curtis said.
No further voyages to the wreckage site are planned.
The recovery of the VDR came after two rounds of investigative hearings by a Coast Guard marine board earlier this year.
The hearings explored the safety record of the ship's owner, Tote Services Inc., and the decisions made by Capt. Michael Davidson to sail the aging freighter near a strong storm.
The El Faro was 40 years old and had open lifeboats, unlike many modern ships that carry closed lifeboats.
Testimony revealed that Davidson knew about Hurricane Joaquin, yet he planned to sail close to it instead of taking a slower, safer path that had been used during past storms. Tote officials said during testimony that the firm's captains are responsible for route planning and are not under time pressure to take risks.
Lawrence Brennan, a professor of maritime law at Fordham University in New York and a former admiralty litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, said that if the NTSB can retrieve the data from the recorder, it will provide "voices from the grave." The information could greatly enhance investigators' understanding of who, ultimately, was at fault for the deaths of 33 people and could lead to new safety requirements, he said.
"The whole purpose of this, in addition to the legal ramifications to come, is to enhance the safety of life at sea," Brennan said. "Tragedies like this have to be avoided."
The company on Tuesday applauded the NTSB's recovery of the data recorder.
"We hope that the information contained will help with the goal to learn everything possible about the loss of our crew and vessel," Tote said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to the NTSB report and welcome safety-related recommendations that benefit our seafarers."
Hart said the data recorder will help give more information about what happened on the ship's bridge, including any conversations between Davidson, the crew and Tote officials, but it's just one part of the agency's continuing investigation.
"There is still a great deal of work to be done in order to understand how the many factors converged that led to the sinking and the tragic loss of 33 lives," he said.
Families hoped there was a possibility that they could hear the voices of loved ones again, but the NTSB said only transcripts of the recordings will be released, as federal law prohibits release of the audio itself.
"It is a little disappointing," said Pastor Robert Green, whose son, LaShawn Rivera, was among those lost with the ship. "And unless I missed some communication that referred to that not being accessible for the families, it's really the first that I've heard of it."
Green said he hadn't decided if he would even want to listen to the audio, but knowing he doesn’t have the option is difficult to hear. He did say he’s hopeful the information on the data recorder leads to changes.
"The information will definitely be helpful and useful in closing the gaps -- the timeline and all of those particular matters, Green said.
Rochelle Hamm, whose husband, Frank Hamm, died on El Faro, said that she is grateful for the efforts to recover the VDR.
Hamm, whose husband’s helmet recently washed ashore in Ormond Beach, said she hopes that the recordings help bring changes that will prevent future tragedies.
“What I’m looking for is ways to make this not happen again. When things fail, it won’t happen again, that other families won’t have to go through what we are going through,” she said.
Maritime lawyer Rod Sullivan said it's likely that the information on the recordings could provide long-awaited answers.
“You’re going to hear the instructions the captain gave to the crew,” Sullivan said. “When was the time to put on your life jackets, when was the time to put on your suits? When was the time to launch one of the lifeboats? And when was the time the order was given to abandon ship?”
Sullivan said experts will be able to determine when El Faro’s main generators stopped working, whether there was a hull breach and many other conditions that could eventually lead to changes.
“I think we’re going to be able to determine whether the engines shut down first and then the ship went broadside to the seas and capsized, or whether it was the heavy weather that caused the engines to shut down,” Sullivan said.