Twenty-six hours of data, including audio of the Captain’s call to abandon ship, have been recovered from El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder.
The device- essentially the ship's black box- was pulled from the ocean floor two weeks ago. While it appeared to be in good condition, whether it captured data and whether that information was useable wasn't immediately known. Now, the NTSB says they have bridge audio, navigational data, onboard radar images, and wind data. They're also still working through crew conversations about the weather situation and operation and condition of the ship.
Initial information released by the NTSB said the audio recording was degraded, but an updated release hours later said only that there was a high level of background noise. The NTSB says they are able to use filters to discern some of the crew conversations.
The recording started around 5:37AM September 30th, or eight hours after El Faro left Jacksonville on her cargo route to Puerto Rico. It ends around 7:40AM October 1st, about ten minutes after the Captain called to abandon ship and sounded the alarm. The Captain's calls to shoreside personnel are also captured.
El Faro's Captain reported a hull breach, saying they had taken on water and were listing badly. The ship had also lost propulsion before sinking, and the Captain reported the engineers couldn't get it running again. The NTSB says conversations between Captain and crew about these issues can be heard in the data they've already reviewed.
This is the first time we've confirmed the crew was told to abandon ship. The Coast Guard has previously said that, if the crew was told to abandon ship, they would have still faced very difficult conditions because Hurricane Joaquin was a Category 4 at that time.
Thirty-three people aboard El Faro died when the ship sank in Hurricane Joaquin, and none of the bodies were recovered. The families of the victims were briefed by the NTSB ahead of the public release of this new information.
The NTSB is convening a “voyage data recorder group” to develop a detailed transcript of the recording. The NTSB previously said the audio itself will not be released, but the transcripts will become public. It’s unclear how long it will take to put the transcripts together, however, with investigators noting the length of the recording and high level of background noise will make their work a “time consuming process”.
A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation has also been probing the sinking and will issue separate findings. They plan to convene a third public hearing session to examine the VDR information, when it’s available.