NTSB Releases Audio Transcript from El Faro’s VDR


January 2017


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On Dec. 13, five “factual documents” were added to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) El Faro investigation docket, including the audio transcript from the vessel’s voyage data recorder (VDR). The transcript report is more than 500 pages, and is the longest transcript ever produced by the NTSB, the agency noted.


The VDR, along with other electronic systems, recorded 26 hours of data leading up to the sinking of the El Faro, sorted into 11 categories: bridge audio, date, time, VDR power supply status, position and other GPS data, heading, course, speed, rate of turn, wind data and automatic identification system data. The transcript of the bridge audio is considered critical by the NTSB in determining the events that led to the loss of the vessel. Ten hours of audio were determined to be relevant to the investigation, and were transcribed by the NTSB into the record.


The following is the NTSB’s summary of the characterization of the bridge audio transcript


"The bridge audio recording began about 5:37 a.m., Sept. 30, 2015, roughly eight hours after the El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida.


“The first recorded conversation about the forecasted weather was captured the morning of Sept. 30, between the captain and chief mate, who agreed on a course diversion they believed would keep them sufficiently clear of the eye of Hurricane Joaquin. There were multiple conversations regarding weather and route planning throughout the day and evening of Sept. 30.


“The captain departed the bridge at about 8 p.m. Sept. 30, and returned at about 4:10 a.m. Oct 1. At about 4:37 a.m. the chief mate received a phone call from the chief engineer regarding the vessel’s list and engine oil levels. This appears to be the first recorded conversation about these issues. The information was related to the captain. The alternate chief engineer is heard stating at about 5:12 a.m. that he’s never seen the ship with such a list.


“At about 5:43 a.m. the captain takes a phone call and indicates there is a problem in the number three hold of the ship and sends the chief mate to investigate. They discuss suspected flooding over UHF radio, which appears to be the first recorded conversation about a flooding condition on the ship.


“The captain indicates at about 6:13 a.m. that the ship lost propulsion. Numerous conversations are heard throughout the remainder of the recording about the ship’s flooding condition, attempts to rectify the ship’s list and attempts to regain propulsion.


“The second mate began formatting a GMDSS distress message at about 6:32 a.m. as directed by the captain. At 7:07 a.m. the captain notified TOTE Service’s designated shore-side representative of the critical situation and that he was preparing to send an electronic distress signal. The captain instructed the second mate to send the distress message at about 7:13 a.m. The captain gave the command to sound the ship’s general alarm at about 7:27 a.m. and about two minutes later the second mate exclaimed there were containers in the water and the captain gave the command to sound the abandon ship alarm. About four minutes later the captain relayed over the UHF radio to put the life rafts in the water.


“The bridge audio recording ended at about 7:40 a.m. Oct. 1, 2015, with the captain and one of the helmsmen still present on the bridge.”


The full bridge audio transcript is available online in the docket at http://go.usa.gov/x8p9j


The four other reports added to the docket were the Engineering Group Factual Report, the Survival Factors Group Factual Report, the Meteorology Group Factual Report and the Electronic Data Group Factual Report.


According to the agency, the Engineering Group Factual Report contains information about the El Faro’s machinery system, a description and history of the vessel, maintenance histories for the plant, survey and inspection information, the vessel’s safety management system, and information about the training and experience of the El Faro’s engineering staff.


Also as reported by the NTSB, the Survival Factors Group Factual Report contains information about the U.S. Coast Guard’s search efforts, the El Faro’s survival equipment, crew preparedness, lifeboat standards and regulations, and information about distress transmissions.


Meanwhile, the Meteorology Group Factual Report provides information about what meteorological information was available to the El Faro’s crew, and the Electronic Data Group Factual Report discussed the data recovered from the VDR and other systems.


After the release of these findings, the NTSB scheduled a third round of hearings for the Marine Board of Investigations into the loss of the vessel. This final hearing session – slated for February in Jacksonville, Florida (exact date or dates to be determined) – will examine additional elements of the investigation, including but not limited to questions arising from the contents of the El Faro’s VDR, as well as witnesses such as former crew members, TOTE company officials, Coast Guard personnel and others. A third hearing was always in the long-range plan. When the details are finalized, look for information on dates and times for the hearings in future editions of the Seafarers LOG and on the SIU website in the News section.


The SIU-crewed El Faro sank on Oct. 1, 2015, claiming 33 lives including 17 members of the SIU and 11 members of the American Maritime Officers. The anniversary of the tragedy was commemorated recently, with memorial services conducted in Jacksonville and at the Seafarers-affiliated Paul Hall Center in Piney Point, Maryland.


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