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'It's more powerful than we thought': El Faro's 'black box' transcript released
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'It's more powerful than we thought': El Faro's 'black box' transcript released

'It's more powerful than we thought': El Faro's 'black box' transcript released
Photo Credit: NTSB

'It's more powerful than we thought': El Faro's 'black box' transcript released

“I’m not leavin’ you let’s go”.

It’s some of the final moments captured by El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder, or ‘black box’, where the Captain tells a crewman not to freeze and that the crew member needs to move. It comes after the ship’s alarm was sounded, and there was a call to get life rafts in the water and to abandon ship.

For the first time, we’re now learning about the 26 hours of data captured on the device ahead of the ship sinking in Hurricane Joaquin. The NTSB determined ten hours of the audio to be pertinent to their investigation, and the transcript is the longest one ever issued by the agency.

It’s been more than a year since the NTSB opened their investigation in to the ship’s sinking. Information released until now- including the Master’s final shoreside communications- show El Faro had lost propulsion and taken on water before going down, killing all 33 people on board. It took three missions to find and ultimately recover the VDR, which captured recordings from the bridge as well as other information about weather, navigation, and more.

FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking

Tuesday, the NTSB opened the public docket on their investigation, which included- for the first time- releasing the information learned from the VDR. WOKV worked through the entire 510 page report to bring you all of the new information.

Outdated weather information impacts course changes

The NTSB confirms the VDR recording stopped at the time of the ship’s sinking. It’s believed the Captain and one other crew member were on the bridge at the time.

Conversations indicated the crew did not believe they had accurate wind data, and the data from the anemometer was- in fact- inaccurate, according to NTSB.

The NTSB also said that data which the ship received through a special system called the Bon Voyage System is, by nature, six hours old because of how the weather data is processed and mapped out by the system. We’ve previously confirmed through a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, however, that the data El Faro had the day ahead of the sinking was about 21 hours outdated, because the ship had received some duplicated data. The conversations confirm the Captain spoke about conflicting information while on the bridge and the crew was frustrated with the inconsistent data. There was another system on board that provided more up to date information, but needed to be manually plotted.

The VDR captured one conversation where the Captain altered the course of the ship the day before the sinking because of the weather information available.

“we’ll be about sixty miles south of the eye. it should be fine. we are gunna be fine- not should be- we are gunna be fine,” the Captain said around 8:30am the day before the storm.

On a few occasions, the Captain voiced concern about the ship’s speed.

“I think now it’s not a matter of speed it when we get there we get there as long as we arrive in one piece,” responded the Second Mate.

Around 7PM, the transcript shows the Captain authorized a second course change following a conversation with the Chief Mate. When the Third Mate was on the watch around 8:20PM, the transcript details a conversation with a Helmsman showing increasing concern.

“we can’t outrun it  you know. it’s more powerful than we thought,” the Third Mate said.

Two subsequent conversations- one with the Third Mate on watch at 11:15 PM and one with the Second Mate on watch around 1 AM- included those on watch speaking with the Captain about a course change to the south, but the VDR recordings indicate the Captain declined at that time to make other adjustments, according to the NTSB.

The storm arrives

After that conversation, the Helmsman on watch with the Second Mate saw multiple flashes on the bow, but couldn’t determine what it was. A conversation between the two a short time later references the ship losing speed and not running at max RPMs.

“damn sure don’t wanna lose the plant,” the Helmsman said.

By 2:10am, they noted green water on the bow, clanking, and accelerating wind. By 2:50am, they heard what they believed to be unspecified items that had broken loose on the ship because of the movement the weather was inflicting on the ship.

“hello Joaquin,” said the Second Mate at 3:22am.

The helm was knocked off course several times in the next half hour and the steering stand alarm was triggered frequently after that- to the point where the Chief Mate disabled it. The Chief Mate returned to the bridge around 3:44am and the Captain shortly after 4am. They struggled with visibility as the maneuvered the ship through the storm.

The bridge got a call from the engine room around 4:30am the morning of the sinking talking about the list and engine oil levels. The alternate Chief Engineer is heard on the recording saying he has never seen the ship with such a list around 5:12am, then at 5:43am the Captain is notified about a problem with the number three hold, and suspects it to be flooding. He sends the Chief Mate to investigate and “start the pumping right now”. He also instructed crew to pump from the starboard ramp tanks to port to allow further investigation of the flooding.

The flooding there was attributed to a blown scuttle, but the Captain believed it had been brought under control. Later conversations show more problems with flooding, though, including water sloshing in to the engine room, a rupture causing flooding in one hold, and the bilge alarm going off in another hold. The crew continued to fight the list by pumping, but the Captain noted they weren’t able to gain ground.

The ship lost propulsion at 6:13am, and the transcript now confirms the boiler was among the equipment that went down as part of the plant being lost. We’ve previously confirmed that components of the boiler had been recommended for service. The NTSB says a loss of propulsion essentially left the ship at the “mercy of the seas and the wind” because they weren’t able to reposition in a way to best weather the storm. The Captain asked if the engine room would be able to get the plant back online, and about twenty minutes after the first report, the Captain indicated the boiler would be able to be brought up. The engineering crew continued to struggle to do that, however, because of the list, and the transcript does not indicate that the plant was ever restored.

AUDIO: El Faro Captain reports 'marine emergency'

Crew concerns

Other conversations captured ahead of the sinking included crew concerns about shifting cargo. On the morning the day ahead of the sinking, the Chief Mate told the Captain he wasn’t happy with the way cargo was getting secured on their journeys.

“they don’t do the lashing the way it oughta be done,” the Chief Mate said.

A Helmsman and Third Mate also spoke about not having asked for storm lashing and having difficulty finding spare equipment, and a trailer that was leaning on the second deck was reported to the Chief Mate.  The Chief Mate further said he personally saw cars that were being transported bobbing around in flooding on one of the decks. As the ship started facing problems, the NTSB says the VDR picked up the sound of what’s believed to be cargo or equipment crashing around the bridge, and one crew member saw containers in the water.

The Captain also called to get life rafts in the water, although it’s unclear if the crew was able to get in them. Hours ahead of the sinking, the VDR captured conflicting messages about safety gear from the crew. Some said they were getting their survival suits ready, while others joked about having the gear on hand.

“usually people don’t take the whole umm-uh-survival suit- safety meeting thing very seriously. then it’s ‘yeah- whatever, it fits’ but nobody actually sees to see if their survival suit fits. I think today would be a good day [sound of laugh] for- for the fire and boat drill- just be like- ‘so we just wanna make sure everyone’s survival suit fits’ and then with the storm people are gunna (go/be like) ‘holy [expletive]. I really need to see if my survival suit fits- for reaaal,’ [laughter throughout],” said the Second Mate around 1:40am the morning of the crash.

Some of the crew conversations also questioned whether the company they were working for acknowledged and valued the work they were doing. One conversation between the Captain and Chief Mate indicated both were “in line for the choppin’ block” and “waitin’ to get screwed”. A Helmsman told a Third Mate he avoided speaking out at safety meetings because he didn’t want to be labeled a “troublemaker”. The Third Mate responds that it can be difficult to get stuff done on board, saying he’s seen cases where issues have to be mentioned to several different people, but action only happens after it’s mentioned in a safety meeting.

“it’s hard on here because there’s so many [expletive] things to address-  it’s like where do you start you know?” says the Third Mate.

The final moments

Despite being in “dire straits”, the Captain said around 7:09am that they believed the best option was to stay with the ship, because of the “ferocious” weather. By 7:24am, that opinion changed and the Captain decided to ring the general alarm, although he still did not want to abandon the ship. At 7:28am he ordered a good head count and said everyone needed to have their immersion suits, and at 7:29am he decided to call to abandon ship. At 7:31am life rafts were ordered in to the water.

“everybody- everybody. get off. get off the ship stay together,” the Captain said over the ship’s internal radio.

Some of the earlier statements are chilling- from crew joking about the Polish riding workers not understanding what a hurricane could bring, to referencing the movie “A Perfect Storm”, to laughing early on while charting the storm saying it looked like it was coming for them.

“oh look at that red sky over there. red in the morn’ sailors take warning. that is bright,” said the Captain 6:41am the day ahead of the sinking.

“guess I’m just turnin’ into a chicken little but- I have a feeling like something bad is gunna happen,” said the Third Mate, while on watch at 10:40PM the night before the sinking.

The most chilling portion, however, is the end, where the Captain and Helmsman are the only remaining on the bridge and the Captain is heard urging the crewman to “snap out of it”, “get up”, and “move” in an exchange that started around 7:32am. The Helmsman repeatedly calls for help, and appears to be frozen.

“goin’ down,” yelled the Helmsman.

“you’re not goin’ down. come on,” responded the Captain.

“you gunna leave me,” the Helmsman said,

“I’m not leavin’ you let’s go,” the Captain loudly responded.

The exchange ends when the recording is stopped at 7:39am, with both still at the bridge.

What comes next

What has still not been released is any analysis of this information by the NTSB, recommendations they plan to make as a result of the investigation, or finding of probable cause on what led to the sinking. That will be issued at a later date. The agency did say that the information they’ve gathered will play a crucial role in their investigation.

The NTSB is also expected to take part in a third hearing session of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation which was convened on the sinking. While the NTSB has been participating in these hearings, both bodies will issue separate findings. The third hearing session is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

WOKV will be working through the other reports that were made public in the coming weeks.

Editor’s Note: The quotes in this story are all attributable to the transcript. The capitalizations, punctuation, and other features within the quotations represent how the quote appears in the transcript.

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