El Faro Black Box Search Resumes

El Faro wreckage

Published Apr 18, 2016 11:50 AM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will resume its search for the voyage data recorder or “black box” from the El Faro on Monday.

In a statement on Sunday, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said this second search will also involve more documentation of the wreckage.

Crews from the National Science Foundation and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are expected to be at the wreckage site for 10 days. They will return on May 5. 

A search area of approximately 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles) will be photo- and video-documented by Sentry, an autonomous underwater vehicle that will be launched from the research vessel Atlantis, which is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Sentry can work at depths of nearly 20,000 feet and can be equipped with a wide array of sonar, camera and other sensors.

The El Faro sank in a hurricane October 1, 2015, after losing propulsion near the Bahamas on its way from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 on board died.

The 790-foot ship was located in about 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas on October 31. Over the next few weeks the ship and the debris field were documented with a video camera mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Video revealed that the navigation bridge structure and the deck below it had separated from the ship. The missing structure included the mast and its base where the VDR was mounted. Neither the mast nor the VDR was found in the vicinity of the navigation bridge structure.

A search crew on the salvage tug Apache, working for the NTSB, were unable to find the VDR in an initial examination of the wreck site. The VDR recording unit was fitted with a battery-powered underwater acoustic beacon, which would have emitted detectable sonar pings to assist the search team.

In February, John Fletcher, Global Service Manager for Northrop Grumman Sperry Marine, told investigators that the battery for the El Faro's voyage data recorder (VDR) may have passed its expiration date prior to her sinking. The unit was serviced in May 2015, but the firm was not sure whether or not the battery had been replaced at that time; if not, it would have been past its due date. Sperry did not find out about the inspection uncertainty until after the El Faro went down.

By SOLAS requirements, the VDR unit would have recorded date and time, position, speed (through water or over ground), heading, bridge audio, comms audio, selected radar data, and AIS data – information considered valuable to the investigation into her loss.

A VDR of the type that was mounted on El Faro is capable of recording conversations and sounds on the navigation bridge, which could provide investigators with important evidence as they seek to understand the sequence of events that led to the sinking. In addition, investigators hope to obtain high quality images of the bridge, debris field and hull.

If the VDR is located, another mission using a remotely operated vehicle capable of recovering the recorder will be initiated.