About 10 minutes after the captain of the El Faro sounded the alarm to abandon ship, the device installed on the vessel for the purpose of recording such a significant event went silent.

Earlier that same morning, the cargo ship’s voyage data recorder captured audio of crew members on the bridge discussing how the vessel was starting to list, was flooding, and had lost propulsion while Hurricane Joaquin battered the ship.

On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board revealed for the first time that the highly sought after VDR contains sounds and spoken words that may help investigators better understand what happened before the El Faro sank Oct. 1 about 39 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

All 33 crew members perished, including its captain, 53-year-old Michael Davidson of Windham.

The NTSB said in a news release that the data recorder contains 26 hours of information, including audio from the bridge of the ship, weather data, and navigational data. Investigators have examined the device and found it to be in good condition.

The audio recordings could help bring closure to the victims’ families, including relatives of the five crew members with connections to Maine and Maine Maritime Academy.


“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,” the NTSB said in a statement. “There are times during the recording when the content of the crew’s discussion is difficult to determine, at other times the content can be determined using audio filtering.”


Christopher O’Neil, the NTSB’s spokesman, explained that the background noise includes propulsion sounds, metallic vibrations, weather-related noises such as waves and wind, and sounds from the El Faro’s heating and ventilation systems.

The NTSB said a group, made up mostly of NTSB investigators, will be formed to develop a detailed transcript of the “sounds and discernible words” that were recorded on the bridge. Each member of the group will be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, meaning they will not be permitted to share what they hear on the recordings with victims’ families or the public.

O’Neil said federal law prohibits the NTSB from releasing the recordings even to families, but that once the audio has been reviewed, a detailed, written transcript will be made public.

There is no timeline for how long it will take the agency to develop a final transcript. “It is going to take a lot of effort to go through 26 hours of data,” O’Neil said.


O’Neil said the audio recordings contained on the VDR will eventually be turned over to Tote Maritime – the El Faro’s owner – and it will be up to the shipping company to decide if families should hear the recordings.

The El Faro recording begins at about 5:37 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 30 or about eight hours after the ship departed Jacksonville, Florida. At the time the recording started, the ship was about 150 nautical miles southeast of Jacksonville.

At 6:13 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 1, the VDR records Davidson speaking on the bridge’s telephone “notifying shoreside personnel of the vessel’s critical situation, and preparing to abandon ship if necessary.”


Davidson ordered his crew to abandon ship and sounded the ship’s alarm at about 7:30 a.m. The recording ends about 10 minutes later.

The data recorder from El Faro was recovered from the ocean floor on Aug. 8, about 10 months after the ship sank. It was taken to the NTSB’s laboratory and the information from the data recorder was recovered Aug. 15.


The device was retrieved in roughly 15,000 feet of water off the Bahamas, where it sank last October. The sinking was one of the worst maritime tragedies in recent history.

Five crew members with Maine ties were among the dead.

They include: Danielle Randolph and Dylan Meklin of Rockland, Michael Holland of Wilton, Davidson of Windham, and Mitchell Kuflik of Connecticut. All five crew members were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

The families of the El Faro’s crew were briefed about the recordings Wednesday.

Deb Roberts, Holland’s mother, could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.


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