NTSB investigators recover data from El Faro VDR

Written by Nick Blenkey
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AUGUST 24, 2016 — The National Transportation Safety Board says that about 26 hours of information has been recovered from the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the El Faro, the TOTE cargo ship that sank during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015.

The NTSB is convening a voyage data recorder group that, next Monday, will develop a detailed transcript of the sounds and discernible words captured on the El Faro’s bridge audio, following the audition of the ship’s VDR.

The VDR was retrieved from the ocean floor Aug. 8, 2016, and transported to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington DC, Aug. 12.

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.

About 26 hours of information was recovered including bridge audio, weather data and navigational data.

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, 2015 – about 8 hours after the El Faro departed Jacksonville, FL, 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 the master speaking on the telephone, notifying shoreside personnel of the vessel’s critical situation, and preparing to abandon ship if necessary.

The master ordered abandon ship and sounded the alarm about 7:30 a.m., Oct. 1, 2015. The recording ended about 10 minutes later when the El Faro was about 39 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas.

The times stated are preliminary and subject to change and final validation by the voyage data recorder group.

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 the results of the audition Wednesday prior to the NTSB’s public release of the characterization of the audition.

It remains unknown how long it will take to develop the final transcript of the El Faro’s VDR. The length of the recording and high levels of background noise will make transcript development a time consuming process.

The NTSB says an update will be provided “when warranted.”

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