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El Faro data recorder recovered

Mission finds Jacksonville-based cargo ship's VDR

El Faro voyage data recorder in fresh water on the USNS Apache (Provided by NTSB)
El Faro voyage data recorder in fresh water on the USNS Apache (Provided by NTSB)

The voyage data recorder from Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro has been recovered, the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday.

A Navy vessel that left Little Creek, Virginia, Friday headed for Caribbean waters near the Bahama succeeded in its effort to retrieve the key piece of evidence in the ship's sinking last fall during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 crew members on board died.

The recovery of the capsule caps a 10-month-long effort to retrieve the recorder, which was designed to record navigational data and communications between crew members on the ship’s bridge. Investigators hope the recorder will reveal information about the final hours of El Faro’s voyage and the circumstances leading up to the sinking. 

"The recovery of the recorder has the potential to give our investigators greater insight into the incredible challenges that the El Faro crew faced,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart, “but it’s just one component of a very complex investigation."

A previous mission located the navigation bridge of the ship 3 miles below the surface, but searchers were not able to find the mast or the data recorder. The crew of the USNS Apache took specialized deep-water retrieval equipment and seemed optimistic that they could retrieve the ship's black box. 

"It's quite a complicated and complex mission," said Brian Curtis, acting director of the National Transportation Safety Board's Office of Marine Safety before the mission headed out.

Curtis said it would take about four days for the Apache to get to the location where the previous mission located the data recorder. The crew was set to spend about two to four days on site trying to retrieve it from from the ocean floor, but pulled it up Monday night.

After arriving at the El Faro's location on Monday morning, technicians maneuvered CURV-21, a deep ocean remotely operated underwater vehicle, down about 15,000 feet to the sea floor where the wreckage of El Faro rests.

Crews used specialized tools to pull the VDR capsule off the mast structure and pull it up to the deck of the ocean tug at about 10:30 pm Monday.

The voyage data recorder will be examined while at sea by NTSB investigators aboard the USNS Apache, to assess the condition of the device and to ensure proper preservation for readout and further examination ashore.

The VDR will be taken to the NTSB's laboratory after the Apache returns from sea around Friday. Once at the NTSB's lab, a team of specialists will audition the recording.

It's unclear how long it may take to review the data and audio information that may be captured on El Faro's VDR. While the minimum design requirement for VDRs of this type is for 12 hours of recording, it may contain additional information -- the review of which is a thorough and time consuming undertaking, NTSB officials said.

While investigators examine the VDR on Tuesday, additional photos and videos of the wreckage and debris field will be taken.

The NTSB does not plan any more missions to the wreckage site unless the investigation warrants them.