JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Officials have recovered about 26 hours of information from the voyage data recorder of the sunken cargo ship El Faro, which was pulled from the ocean floor off the Bahamas.
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 Hurricane Joaquin while on its way to Puerto Rico.
The "black box" was found in April near the wreckage 3 miles below the surface and was successfully recovered Aug. 8 and taken to the National Transportation and Safety Board's lab on Aug. 12.
Information from the El Faro’s VDR, including about 26 hours of bridge audio, weather data and navigational data, was successfully recovered Aug. 15.
The NTSB announced Wednesday that it will convene a VDR group on Monday to develop a detailed transcript of the sounds and discernible words captured on the El Faro’s bridge audio.
Investigators examined the VDR, found it to be in good condition, and downloaded the memory module data in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommended procedures.
Numerous events leading up to the loss of the El Faro are heard on the VDR’s audio, recorded from microphones on the ship’s bridge. The quality of the recording is degraded because of high levels of background noise. 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.
The recording began about 5:37 a.m. Sept. 30, about eight hours after the El Faro departed Jacksonville with the ship about 150 nautical miles southeast of the city.
The bridge audio from the morning of Oct. 1 captured the master and crew discussing their actions regarding flooding and the vessel’s list. The vessel’s loss of propulsion was mentioned on the bridge audio about 6:13 a.m.
Also captured was Capt. Michael Davidson speaking on the telephone, notifying shoreside personnel of the vessel’s critical situation and preparing to abandon ship, if necessary, about 7:10 a.m.
Five minutes later, the U.S. Coast Guard received a stress alert from the El Faro. Davidson ordered abandon ship and sounded the alarm about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 1.
The recording ended about 10 minutes later when the El Faro was about 39 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas. These times are preliminary and subject to change and final validation by the voyage data recorder group.
Maritime expert and attorney Rod Sullivan said a critical hour past before the captain signaled for help.
"It's clear to me that, at 6:13 in the morning, they knew they had a substantial problem with flooding. They didn't call anybody for over 57 minutes and during that 57 minutes, they could have certainly radioed for help. They could have done something besides simply to work out there at sea and not tell anybody," Sullivan said. "That was a critical hour that they could have used better."
Sullivan said the thing that stuck out to him from the recording was negligence on behalf of El Faro's parent company TOTE Services, since documents show that the ship appears to have taken on water for a significant amount of time before the ship lost power.
"Ships do not have to take on water in the absence of negligence. So if the ship was taking on water for over an hour before she lost power, that indicates to me that they had a haul breach or they had a hatch that was open -- both of which are negligence on behalf of TOTE," Sullivan said.
The VDR group’s technical experts will continue reviewing the entire recording, including crew discussions regarding the weather situation and the operation and condition of the ship.
Families of the El Faro’s crew were briefed about what was heard on the recording Wednesday before the NTSB’s public release of the information.
Sullivan said the new information could be leverage for the families who have not settled lawsuits.
"For the families that have settled, (they) have not settled under unfavorable terms. They were offered enough money to make it worth their while to settle. I think the remaining families, as well, have an awesome incentive to enter into settlement negotiations and try to see if they can settle with TOTE as well," Sullivan said.
It remains unknown how long it will take to develop the final transcript of the El Faro’s VDR, officials said. The length of the recording and high levels of background noise will make transcript development a time-consuming process, they said.
The actual audio recordings will never be released, per federal law. But the final transcript of the VDR will be made public once the investigation is over.
New discovery brings new hope for father of El Faro crew member
The father of LaShawn Rivera, who was working in the El Faro's engine room when the ship began sinking with 32 others on board, said the recovery of the audio from the voyage data recorder has provided his family some comfort.
"The also heard them give the abandon ship call, which really gives us some comfort knowing they were 39 nautical miles away from land when they had the abandon ship call. So we're interested in the recovery, and if God is willing, rescue," Pastor Robert Green said.
Green said every time there is a development with the El Faro, the wound reopens, but hearing the words "abandon ship" now gives him and other families hope.
"Because we had the feeling that they could be entombed in the ship. There were some families that were sure of it, that no one made it off the ship even though there was one body and a survivor suit that was found," Green said.
Green said his family has stayed hopeful after hearing the story of the first American shot down in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. After 18 years, the remains of U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Speicher were recovered in 2009. Green said that family did not give up searching, and neither will his.
"I believer there is a voice calling out there that either says rescue me or recover me. And I think we would be short-minded not to do just that," Green said. "We know that God is still in control and we believe that one day, we'll have our son's remains at home and in its proper place, if not himself. And that will be a beautiful day."