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Retrieving cargo ship El Faro's voyage data recorder could take months

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: April 30, 2016

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — It likely will be months before the National Transportation Safety Board can retrieve the voyage data recorder from the cargo ship El Faro, which sank last fall about 40 miles northeast of the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin and claimed the lives of 33, including two with Hampton Roads ties.

The data recorder could contain important clues about what happened before the ship sank, including audio from the navigation bridge and information about the El Faro's speed and heading. Searchers discovered the basketball-sized data recorder Tuesday in about 15,000 feet of water, more than six months after the 790-foot U.S. flagged ship sank Oct. 1 on its way from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico. A team aboard the Virginia Beach-based Navy vessel USNS Apache first located the ship in November.

The NTSB said in a statement that investigators who found the data recorder aren't able to retrieve it because they don't have the right equipment to do it aboard their research vessel Atlantis, which is owned by the Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The data recorder is attached to a steel beam that's connected to the mast structure, which is resting about 1,500 feet from the rest of the El Faro.

"Now that we have been able to see just how the VDR is oriented relative to the mast structure, it’s clear that we’re going to need specialized deep-water salvage recovery equipment in order to bring it up," Brian Curtis, acting director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety, said in a statement. "Extracting a recorder capsule attached to a four-ton mast under 15,000 feet of water presents formidable challenges, but we’re going to do everything that is technically feasible to get that recorder into our lab."

The NTSB and the Coast Guard both are investigating what happened to the El Faro, and the Coast Guard is set to convene a second round of hearings May 16. Piecing together what happened is especially challenging because there were no survivors.

The ship's chief cook, 32-year-old Jacksonville resident LaShawn Rivera, is the father of two children in Chesapeake and was engaged to their mother. The ship's chief engineer was 34-year-old Virginia Beach resident Richard Pusatere, a married father of one.

Investigators at the upcoming hearing will focus on the El Faro's shipboard operations, cargo loading and stowage operations. The El Faro's analysis of forecasted weather conditions also will be examined along with regulatory oversight of the ship.

A third Coast Guard hearing into the ship's sinking will examine contents from the El Faro's voyage data recorder if it can be recovered and analyzed.

The hearings are examining if there was misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law. The Coast Guard could turn over evidence to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. It also could seek civil penalties. New regulations also could be proposed as a result of what the Coast Guard learns.

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©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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