El Faro VDR Captured 26 Hours of Information


October 2016


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Two weeks after retrieving the voyage data recorder (VDR) from the El Faro, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in late August announced that approximately 26 hours of information had been recovered from the device. The agency released some particulars from a preliminary review of the data and announced that a detailed transcript is being compiled.


The fact that any information was available on the VDR, while not necessarily surprising, is considered relatively good news for investigators. It wasn’t a sure thing that the recorder could be recovered from the ocean floor (at a depth of 15,000 feet), nor was it a certainty that the VDR performed as designed.


The agency said the recovered data includes “bridge audio, weather data and navigational data. Investigators examined the VDR, found it to be in good condition, and downloaded the memory module data in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommended procedures.


“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 NTSB continued. “The quality of the recording is degraded because of high levels of background noise. There are times during the recording when the content of crew discussion is difficult to determine, at other times the content can be determined using audio filtering.”


According to the agency, the recording began about 5:37 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2015 – about eight hours after the SIU-crewed El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida, with the ship about 150 nautical miles southeast of the city. The bridge audio from the morning of Oct. 1 “captured the master and crew discussing their actions regarding flooding and the vessel’s list. The vessel’s loss of propulsion was mentioned on the bridge audio about 6:13 a.m. Also captured was the master speaking on the telephone, notifying shore-side personnel of the vessel’s critical situation, and preparing to abandon ship if necessary. The master ordered abandon ship and sounded the alarm about 7:30 a.m., Oct. 1, 2015. The recording ended about 10 minutes later when the El Faro was about 39 nautical miles northeast of Crooked Island, Bahamas. These times are preliminary and subject to change and final validation by the voyage data recorder group.”


Technical experts will continue reviewing the entire recording, but it remains unclear when a full transcript will be completed. Also, families of the El Faro’s crew were briefed about the preliminary findings prior to the NTSB’s public release of that information.


Meanwhile, in early September the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation completed its review of the transcripts for the first public hearing on the loss of the El Faro (conducted in February). The full transcripts, covering 10 days of hearings, are linked in a Sept. 8 post in the News section of the SIU website and may be accessed directly at: www.uscgnews.com/go/doctype/ 4007/286370/


When announcing the transcript availability, the Coast Guard noted, “The board remains in the fact-finding phase of its investigation and a third hearing session, anticipated for this winter, will examine additional elements of the investigation including information retrieved from the VDR. This final hearing session is anticipated to conclude the fact-finding phase of the investigation. Once the Coast Guard’s fact finding is completed, the MBI will shift to the analysis phase and work independently from the National Transportation Safety Board’s concurrent investigation. When the MBI completes its report of investigation they will submit it to the commandant of the Coast Guard. After the commandant reviews the report and makes his final determinations on any safety recommendations, it will be made public.”


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