A top official with the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday that any viable audio found on the voyage data recorder of the cargo ship El Faro will not be released to the public. A transcript, however, would be made public.

Brian Curtis, acting director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety, said at a news conference that investigators still are unsure whether the data on the recorder survived the ship’s sinking last fall during Hurricane Joaquin. The tragedy killed all 33 people on board, including five with ties to Maine, in one of the biggest maritime disasters in recent history.

But Curtis said he’s hopeful that if the ship’s black box, which was recovered Monday in 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas, is intact, it will answer some remaining questions about the El Faro’s final voyage.

“It can only be a benefit to the investigation,” he said. “It’s impossible to tell until they open it up and see what’s in there … whether that data is viable.”

The El Faro was a 790-foot cargo ship that traveled regularly between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was piloted by Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham.

In addition to Davidson, the crew members with Maine ties who were aboard were Dylan Meklin, 23, and Danielle Randolph, 34, both of Rockland; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton; and Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York.

All were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Curtis could not provide a timeline for release of further information, which could include GPS data and audio from the ship’s bridge – perhaps 12 hours or more recorded before it sank. He said NTSB officials will know more in a couple of weeks, once the data recorder is examined thoroughly at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But he said federal law prohibits the release of any audio that might be recovered, which means family members will not be able to hear what transpired in the final hours before the ship capsized. He could not say how long it might take to release a transcript.

Two hearings have been held into the El Faro tragedy. They have focused on the ship’s condition, weather reports and Davidson’s experience as a captain. Another hearing could be held to discuss the contents of the data recorder, but that may not happen. Curtis said the overall goal of the investigation is to identify ways to ensure that a disaster like this doesn’t occur again.

Curtis said El Faro’s owner, TOTE Maritime, will be involved in listening to the audio – in part to help identify voices.

It took more than 10 months and three separate voyages for investigators to recover the data recorder. The NTSB official said his agency had never before made a recovery from so deep in the ocean.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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