Federal investigators located the voyage data recorder for the El Faro on Tuesday and hope to retrieve the device and the data it contains to learn what caused the cargo ship to sink during a hurricane off the Bahamas nearly seven months ago, claiming the lives of all 33 crew members aboard.

The recorder was discovered around 1 a.m. Tuesday – the day before the search was scheduled to end, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement.

“Finding an object about the size of a basketball almost three miles under the surface of the sea is a remarkable achievement,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said in the statement, praising the assistance of the Coast Guard, the National Science Foundation, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and other agencies.

The voyage data recorder is capable of recording conversations that occurred on the navigation bridge between the captain and crew of the El Faro, which sank in about 15,000 feet of water during Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1.

The El Faro was equipped with a fixed-capsule voyage data recorder, which is capable of recording high frequency radio communications, images captured from on board radar every 15 seconds, and vessel parametric data including date, time, speed and heading, the NTSB said. The fixed capsule is certified to operate to depths of about 20,000 feet.

Investigators hope the device is intact, but they won’t know for certain until it has been recovered and taken to a laboratory for analysis.

There is no time line for when the recovery mission might begin or how long it could take, the NTSB said.

“The data recorder appears to be in good condition, but we won’t know the quality of the data we have until we get it back to the lab,” NTSB spokesman Peter Knudsen said.

The El Faro, a 790-foot cargo ship that made regular trips between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, was captained by Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham.

Four other crew members with Maine ties also were aboard the ship when it sank: Dylan Meklin, 23, and Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton; and Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York. All five crew members were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Holland’s mother, Deb Roberts of Wilton, was informed of the discovery on Tuesday not long before the NTSB made the information public.

She called the discovery “totally remarkable,” but said “it has just opened a whole new range of emotions for me.”

“I’m happy that it has been found, but I am also nervous about what the last moments on the ship were like,” she said Tuesday night.

Roberts said she has tried to re-create her son’s final moments in her own mind, hoping that the crew didn’t suffer.

“I just hope the other families are prepared for what they may hear,” if the data recorder is intact, Roberts said.

Attempts to contact the families of other Maine crew members were unsuccessful Tuesday night.

‘WE WANTED TO FIND THIS VERY BADLY’

Crews began searching for the El Faro after communication was lost during Hurricane Joaquin, which produced heavy seas and wind speeds estimated as high as 155 mph. During those initial searches in early October, investigators found debris such as life rings and a large oil sheen, but the data recorder remained elusive until Tuesday. It was found in a debris field on the ocean floor about 36 nautical miles northeast of Acklins Island and Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

“Under the leadership of Chairman Hart, the NTSB has been working diligently for months to find this device, which could potentially hold important answers for the family and friends of El Faro’s crew and help us prevent future tragedies like this from occurring,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said in a statement Tuesday.

Knudsen said the voyage data recorder is still attached to the El Faro’s mast structure, which was part of the ship’s navigation bridge. Both separated from the vessel during the sinking and ended up spread out on the ocean floor. Knudsen said the voyage data recorder and mast were located about midway between the bow of the El Faro and its navigation bridge, which are about a half-mile apart.

Though data recorders, so-called black boxes, emit a ping to help searchers locate vessels, the pinging stops when its battery dies after about 30 days, Knudsen explained.

The El Faro’s recorder was located during a visual inspection of the ocean floor by the research vessel Atlantis, which is owned by the Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

After examining numerous images provided by remotely operated, undersea search equipment, crew on the Atlantis positively identified the data recorder.

The Atlantis used an autonomous underwater vehicle known as the AUV Sentry to locate the data recorder. The AUV Sentry is capable of exploring the ocean to depths of 6,000 meters, or 19,685 feet. Its hydrodynamic shape allows for faster ascents and descents.

“We are hopeful it contains good data,” Knudsen said of the data recorder. “We wanted to find this very badly.”

QUESTIONS REMAIN ABOUT SHIP’S ROUTE

The Atlantis will remain at the accident site through April 30, while the team continues to document the sunken ship and debris field through photographs and video. Atlantis will return to Woods Hole on May 5.

Key questions remain about routing decisions made by Davidson, who apparently steered the ship closer to the path of the storm, perhaps in hopes of outrunning it.

Until now, investigators have had to work with very limited information about the ill-fated voyage. Davidson had been warned before the ship’s sinking that the storm churning offshore was forecast to become a hurricane, the Associated Press reported.

Despite that warning, Davidson chose to take a path that took him closer to the hurricane’s path, rather than a slower, but safer route. Some maritime experts have said that strategy likely would have succeeded had the ship not lost power, leaving it at the storm’s mercy.

A month before the El Faro’s last journey, during Tropical Storm Erica, Davidson took the slower, safer route after the ship’s owners, Tote Services Inc., sent out a company alert about the storm. No such alert was issued before Joaquin, according to testimony given before a Coast Guard panel investigating the tragedy.

Audio from the voyage data recorder will become the focus of the next round of Coast Guard hearings into the El Faro’s sinking. Those hearings are scheduled to be held in Jacksonville from May 16-27, the AP said.

The Coast Guard conducted a Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the El Faro sinking in February. The NTSB participated in the first round of hearings, also held in Jacksonville.


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