The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the apparent sinking of the El Faro cargo ship is underway in Jacksonville, where investigators are gathering the first, tenuous strands of information necessary to weave a picture of the ship’s final hours.
NTSB Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr briefed U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree Wednesday morning on the agency’s efforts to locate the wreckage of the El Faro, which is believed to have sunk in approximately 15,000 feet of water off the northern coast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas. Missing are the 33 crew members, including 28 Americans and five Polish nationals; one crew member’s body was located by the Coast Guard, but the fate of the remaining 32 aboard is still unknown as Coast Guard search and rescue operations continued Wednesday from the air and sea.
Pingree said the agency’s investigation could take up to 18 months, and will focus in the coming weeks on locating the voyage data recorder, the so-called “black box” that if found intact will give insight into the ship’s final navigational movements, in addition to the previous 12 hours of audio recordings from the ship’s bridge.
“Twelve hours of recording from the bridge could tell you a lot,” Pingree said in an interview. “A lot of questions have been asked about this vessel and if it could present difficulties in this type of weather.”
The National Weather Service issued an advisory upgrading Tropical Storm Joaquin to hurricane status while the ship was several hundred miles into its voyage. The vessel remained on its course through seven additional hurricane advisories over the next 21 hours.
Party to the investigation is the American Bureau of Shipping, TOTE Inc., the ship’s owners, and the nation of Poland, because five of its citizens were aboard to do work related to a pending retrofit of the ship’s engine room.
TOTE has provided to the NTSB access to the El Faro’s sister ship, which could help investigators learn about the unique characteristics of how the ship behaves during rough weather.
Pingree said investigators have a relatively narrow area in which they believe the black box may be found. The device is designed to send out pings for 30 days after it hits the water. If found, the black box could be recovered by the United States Navy, which has robotic retrieval equipment capable of operating to 20,000 feet below the surface.
If no one is found alive, the El Faro’s sinking would be the worst U.S. shipping disaster since 1983, when a bulk carrier sank off the coast of Virginia, killing 31 crew members and prompting major changes in shipping safety standards and water rescue techniques.
TOTE has declined to release the full crew manifest, but media outlets are piecing together the names of those aboard the 790-foot vessel that left Jacksonville Sept. 29 bound for Puerto Rico.
On board were 391 containers topside and 294 trailers and vehicles below deck. It was headed for San Juan, about 1,300 miles to the southeast, but ran into the hurricane less than halfway into the trip.
On the third day of the journey, the crew reported engine problems that left the vessel powerless to evade Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm that blew into the Caribbean region with winds that topped 130 mph, or maneuver once it was in the storm’s grasp.
Aboard were four Mainers, including the ship’s captain, Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham; Danielle Randolph, 33, of Rockland; Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland; and Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton.
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