Search for answers in El Faro disaster turns to VDR recovery


His stricken ship battered by wind and waves, one can picture El Faro Capt. Michael Davidson struggling to manage an increasingly tense situation. Over wailing alarms, he no doubt gave orders, received updates over radio and perhaps made announcements over the intercom.

El Faro’s voyage data recorder, currently some 15,000 feet below the surface, likely caught some of these discussions on the bridge. After rampant speculation about the cause of the accident, federal investigators believe recovering the VDR will offer critical detail about the ship’s final hours.  

“We’re hoping to get those audio files to help clarify what happened,” Brian Curtis, acting director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Marine Safety, said in a recent interview. The agency has conducted numerous interviews in its investigation, but Curtis acknowledged recovering the VDR “could be the key piece” to a complex puzzle.

“It’s true we’re anxious to get the audio files and see if they are viable and downloadable,” he said.

Thirty-three people died when the U.S.-flagged cargo ship sank east of Crooked Island in the Bahamas on Oct. 1 amid a barrage from Hurricane Joaquin. At about 0700, Davidson reported that a propulsion issue had left the vessel drifting and taking on water. A TOTE Inc. subsidiary owned the 40-year-old ro-ro ship, which was carrying vehicles and containerized cargo from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico.

The NTSB announced in early November that it had found the ship’s wreckage, and in late April a remote-control submersible located the VDR on the ocean floor. The unit is capable of withstanding depths exceeding 15,000 feet.

“It was attached to the mast structure about a quarter-mile away from the vessel off to its forward and port side,” Curtis said. “In relation to the main hull, the wheelhouse was located a half-mile in the same direction.”

Video suggests the VDR is intact and potentially will have readable data, he said. The NTSB planned an August mission to recover the VDR. The effort was expected to last two weeks.

El Faro was equipped with a simplified voyage data recorder, a type of VDR installed on retrofitted ships. The device captures 12 hours of audio from microphones installed in several locations on the bridge, VHF radio communications, and radar and AIS data. The ship’s position, speed and heading also are logged.

This type of VDR meets federal requirements but has some limitations. It does not record engine, steering, alarm or wind data, or capture data for hull integrity. However, Curtis said audible alarms on the bridge and crew responses to those warnings likely were captured by the recordings.

El Faro’s voyage data recorder, shown on the sea floor with the mast, may hold important details about the ship’s demise.

Courtesy NTSB

If the data can be recovered, El Faro’s VDR should provide enough information for investigators to determine what happened, said Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

“The thing that everybody has to understand is, there are no eyewitnesses to the actual event, so in order to determine what the possible causes are with any degree of certainty, they are going to have to use recorded data,” he said in a recent interview.

“Much of it is digital data, but it will have relevance to the potential causes, or what the crew’s perception (was),” Murphy added.

Roughly three weeks after the VDR was found, the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation convened in Jacksonville for a second round of El Faro hearings. The sessions that ran from May 16 to May 27 focused on ship operations, cargo loading, stability and the ship’s weather forecast.

During the hearings, TOTE confirmed that the ship’s weather forecast on the morning it sank was at least nine hours old. The ship also received a storm track for Hurricane Joaquin that was at least 10 hours old, according to Applied Weather Technology, which provided the ship with weather reports.

Testimony followed on TOTE’s safety practices. On May 26, TOTE Executive Vice President Peter Keller said the company had a proven management, performance and safety record, arguing, “the proof is in the pudding.”

Jacksonville maritime attorney Rod Sullivan, who attended the hearings, said Keller’s comment struck several victims’ families as callous. During the lunch break, one of the family members bought pudding cups and handed them out to other victims’ relatives, TOTE officials and NTSB members.

Questioning resumed after the break, and NTSB lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy pushed back against Keller’s claims.

“I think many would argue and few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faro and its cargo, and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard the El Faro, represents a colossal failure of the management of companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro,” Roth-Roffy said. “As you stated, the proof is in the pudding.”

“I think this tragic loss is all about an accident,” Keller responded, “and I look to this board and the NTSB to try to define what those elements may or may not have been.”

Contractors on USNS Apache deploy a remotely operated underwater vehicle in November in the search for El Faro. The same equipment will be used in the VDR retrieval mission.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

Roth-Roffy also asked Keller to describe any management failures that preceded the accident. Keller said he could not think of any.

The next day, Roth-Roffy recanted his assertion about management failures and apologized for the question.

In a statement, TOTE said it appreciated the “seafarers and other experts” who participated in the Coast Guard hearings and “continue to work to develop lessons learned from the tragic loss of the El Faro and her crew.”

“Our goal throughout the investigation is to learn everything possible about the loss of our crew and vessel,” TOTE spokesman Michael Hanson said. “Out of respect for our seafarers and for every seafarer here and around the world, it is critical that we understand what contributed to this accident.”

Sullivan, the local counsel in a lawsuit against TOTE brought by the estate of El Faro crewmember Sylvester Crawford, said the second round of hearings was “less scripted and in some cases more interesting than the first.” The first round of hearings concluded in March, and a third round is expected later this year.

“In the first set of hearings, TOTE got to put on their best witnesses and (was) able to show their company in its best light. In the second set of hearings there were more surprises,” he said, referring to the outdated weather information and the exchange between Roth-Roffy and Keller.

As of late June, TOTE had settled 21 of the 33 death claims brought by the victims’ survivors, although Sullivan said his client’s case is ongoing. Several of the claims against TOTE stemming from lost cargo recently were resolved during mediation, he said, although TOTE would not confirm the settlements.

Citing wreckage photos released by the NTSB, Sullivan believes the crew tried to abandon ship but couldn’t access the lifeboats due to the ship’s heavy list.

“The fact that a Jacob’s ladder was moved from the main deck up to the embarkation deck attests to the fact that the crew was experiencing this problem,” he said.

“Lines tied from a container on deck show that the crew were desperately trying to lower themselves into the water rather than jump,” Sullivan added, noting that jumps from certain heights above 10 feet can damage survival suits.

The 790-foot El Faro.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

This theory is not universally accepted, and the recovery of VDR data could confirm or discount this and other speculation about the crew’s final minutes. For instance, the unit likely would have recorded an “abandon ship” order or similar instructions from the captain.

Recovering the unit from water 15,000 feet deep is no small task. Specialized salvage equipment will be required to raise the device. If successful, technicians will use special playback software from the VDR manufacturer to extract the data.

“We’re hoping the audio files are viable and we can use those in our investigation, but that remains to be seen,” Curtis said. “We don’t have the VDR in hand.”

The NTSB investigation into the accident is continuing, for now without the VDR. Federal officials have interviewed TOTE officials and others who can provide technical details and other information about the ship.

“Without the VDR, we remain optimistic we can establish a probable cause … but certainly the audio files would corroborate or elaborate (on other evidence),” Curtis said.

Murphy, the Massachusetts Maritime instructor, expects the VDR will provide useful information, but he said the audio files have one significant shortcoming: If crewmembers did not fully understand what was happening to the ship, the audio could lead investigators astray.

“The accuracy of the reports, that could be in question. They might know there is a hull crack and believe it is 5 feet long when in fact it is 20 feet long,” he said.

Still, Murphy believes bridge audio and other data captured by the VDR will offer key insights into the accident, including the propulsion problem that left the ship stranded and the source of water intrusion that caused the ship to list.

“That information would help them determine what the probable cause was, but whether they actually can determine the precise cause, I am not really sure,” he said. “It depends how much of this information they are able to recover and how detailed it is. I think in the case of El Faro, it probably sank very, very quickly, and I am not sure crew were fully aware of what was going on at the time.”

By Professional Mariner Staff