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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Outdated weather information impacts course changes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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According to WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee, the pilots were removed from service and are self-isolating while follow-up testing and evaluation is being performed, according to FedEx. The exact number of pilots removed is unclear. The company released a statement Sunday: “Some FedEx pilots were flown back to the U.S. after receiving inconclusive test results for COVID-19. They have been removed from duty and are self-isolating while follow-up testing and evaluation is performed. All areas where these team members worked are being thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. The safety and well-being of our employees remains our first concern. FedEx continues to take all necessary precautions and follow guidance from the FAA, CDC and other public health organizations related to reporting and containment of COVID-19. We continue our operation in China and remain committed to providing the best possible service to our customers.“ Dozens of Massachusetts firefighters test positive for COVID-19 Update 4:32 a.m. EDT April 6: At least 87 firefighters in Massachusetts have tested positive for coronavirus as of Sunday, according to The Professional Fire Firefighters of Massachusetts. Boston’s WFXT reports that 1,814 firefighters have a documented exposure to COVID-19, 831 have been tested for the virus and 583 are currently under quarantine. In Taunton, nine firefighters have tested positive for coronavirus. “These numbers are alarming, but firefighters across Massachusetts and the United States will continue to answer your calls for service,” the labor union posted on Twitter on Sunday night. “Please help us help you – Stay home.” >> See the tweet here The numbers encompass 201 locals representing 11,106 members, which account for 97% of the union’s membership. On Sunday, a coronavirus testing site for only first responders opened at Gillette Stadium. Duran Duran’s John Taylor recovers after testing positive for COVID-19 Update 3:30 a.m. EDT April 6: Duran Duran’s John Taylor is feeling better weeks after he tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he wrote Sunday in a post on the band’s Facebook page. According to USA Today, the 59-year-old bass player said he was diagnosed three weeks ago and has since recovered. “After a week or so of what I would describe as a ‘turbo-charged flu,’ I came out of it feeling OK – although I must admit I didn’t mind the quarantine as it gave me the chance to really recover,” he wrote. “I am speaking out in answer to the enormous amount of fear being generated by the pandemic, some of it entirely justified, and my heart goes out to everyone who has had to deal with real loss and pain. But I want to let you know that it isn’t always a killer, and we can and will beat this thing.” >> See the post here Taylor added that he “cannot wait to be back onstage again, sharing new music, love and joy.” Singer-songwriter Christopher Cross tests positive for COVID-19 Update 2:35 a.m. EDT April 6: Singer-songwriter Christopher Cross has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he said in an Instagram post Friday. “I’m sorry to report that I am among the growing number of Americans who tested positive for the COVID-19,” he wrote in the post. “I’m not in the habit of discussing medical issues on social media, but I do so in the hopes that this will help other people to understand how serious and how contagious this illness is. Although I am fortunate enough to be cared for at home, this is possibly the worst illness I have ever had.” >> See the post here Cross, 68, also urged his fans to take the virus seriously and stay home, wash their hands and avoid touching their faces. “For those of you who still do not believe the COVID-19 virus is real, or think it is a ‘hoax’ or part of some conspiracy, my advice to you is to understand right now that this is a deadly illness spreading like wildfire throughout the world,” the Grammy Award winner wrote, encouraging followers to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. He added that everyone should “be kind to one another.' “Only if we work together can we defeat COVID-19,' he wrote. Several other celebrities, including Pink, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Idris Elba and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, have tested positive for the virus. Delta announces changes to SkyMiles, Medallion programs Update 1:49 a.m. EDT April 6: The coronavirus pandemic has brought the airline industry nearly to a halt. In March, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines announced that its revenue fell by $2 billion due to the spread of COVID-19 and a drop in demand for air travel. On Sunday, Delta Air Lines has begun notifying its flyers about changes to its well-known SkyMiles program due to the sudden drop in air travel. “On behalf of all of us at Delta, I want to thank our customers for your continued loyalty during these unprecedented times. While our focus is on keeping customers and employees safe and healthy today and always, you are a part of the Delta family and we know how important these benefits are to you,” said Sandeep Dube, Delta’s senior vice president of customer engagement and loyalty, and CEO of Delta Vacations. “That’s why as coronavirus continues to dramatically impact travel across the globe, you don’t have to worry about your benefits – they’ll be extended so you can enjoy them when you are ready to travel again.” Here are the changes: Medallion Members: All Medallion Status for 2020 will be automatically extended for the 2021 Medallion Year. All Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) from 2020 are being rolled over to 2021 to qualify for 2022 Medallion Status. Delta Sky Club Individual and Executive memberships with an expiration of March 1, 2020, or later will receive six additional months of Delta Sky Club access beyond their expiration date. Delta SkyMiles American Express Card Members: If you have one of the following in your SkyMiles profile “My Wallet” that is valid now or has expired since March 1, 2020, we are extending the expiration dates to give you additional time to enjoy your benefits: SkyMiles Members: If you have one of the following in your SkyMiles profile “My Wallet” that is valid now or has expired since March 1, 2020, we are extending the expiration dates to give you additional time to enjoy your benefits: The updates will happen automatically over the coming weeks, with no action needed from customers, Delta said. “We are continuously monitoring how coronavirus impacts travel and will make additional adjustments to support our customers’ needs as the pandemic evolves,” said Dube. Read more here. U.S. cases soar past 337,000, including more than 9,600 deaths Update 12:43 a.m. EDT April 6: The number of novel coronavirus cases in the United States soared past 337,000 across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands early Monday. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are at least 337,620 confirmed U.S. cases of the virus, which have resulted in at least 9,643 deaths. Worldwide, there are 1,274,923 confirmed cases and 69,479 deaths from the virus. U.S. cases outnumber those in any other nation, including the 131,646 reported in Spain and the 128,948 confirmed in Italy. Of the confirmed deaths in the U.S., 4,159 have occurred in New York, 917 in New Jersey, 617 in Michigan and 477 in Louisiana. In terms of diagnosed cases, New York remains the hardest-hit with at least 123,160 confirmed cases, followed by New Jersey with 37,505, Michigan with 15,718 and California with 15,154. Five other states have each confirmed at least 10,000 novel coronavirus cases, including: • Louisiana: 13,010, including 477 deaths • Massachusetts: 12,500, including 231 deaths • Florida: 12,350, including 221 deaths • Pennsylvania: 11,589, including 151 deaths • Illinois: 11,259, including 274 deaths The Associated Press contributed to this report.
  • It's some good news for your wallet amid the coronavirus pandemic. WOKV's Consumer Warrior Clark Howard says a number of auto insurance companies are offering refunds to customers.  'With so far fewer vehicles on the road, the accident rates have collapsed. So, auto insurers are voluntarily, in some cases before being ordered by state regulators, to refund a portion of people's auto insurance premiums,' Howard explains.  Out of the big auto insurance companies, Howard says Allstate was among the first to make a refund announcement. He says Allstate is giving people 15% of the premium dollars collected for April and May.  'Others are going to come up with their own formulas. But, you're going to see money show up a number of different ways. [It] could be direct deposit back into your account, could be a check back to you, could be a credit toward future premiums,' says Howard.  He says this is a smart move.  'Auto insurers are doing a really smart thing now, being there to help while their insureds really need it, and it's going to give people a positive feeling toward their auto insurers,' Howard says.  Get more consumer news and advice from Clark Howard in his latest on-demand podcasts by clicking HERE.
  • Volunteers at a local church rolled up their sleeves to help medical workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic Monday.  Rob Soberay cooks meals at Lakewood United Methodist Church at least once a week.  COVID-19 put a stop to the community meals at the church.  “It was actually a difficult thing because of my love and passion for food,” Soberay said.  Instead, he dished out and delivered soup for the “Souper-heroes” working in the emergency room at Baptist Medical Center South.  “I think it’s one of life’s simple pleasures, to be able to cook for someone and make them enjoy that mean that you prepared for them,” Soberay said.  The church’s volunteers are bagging up all the elements to make a full meal for first responders including fruit and cookies baked by a local cancer survivor.  “We’re standing with them, not just here at Lakewood, but all of use are standing with them. We’re grateful for all they do for us,” pastor Don Thompson told Action News Jax.  “It’s just a small way for us here at Lakewood to be able to pay that back,” Soberay said.
  • There is new debate over whether now is the time to ask voters to pay more to help schools. Action News Jax has been telling you for months that Duval County Public Schools wants more than a billion dollars to fix its aging schools.  The City of Jacksonville subcommittee on Public Health and Safety met virtually on Monday morning and most of the discussion centered around the half-cent sales tax and whether to add it to the November ballot.  Council member Rory Diamond asked the committee to consider putting a hold on the bill, calling it a bold and expensive plan.  “That’s why I’ll be voting no. I would recommend school board should reduce their plan, significantly scaling down given the economic environment,” Diamond said.   Action News Jax has been following this story for months, even showing you leaks inside Duval County schools and exposed wires where students are supposed to be able to learn.  Diamond told the council he was worried this decision could lead to more unemployment in the city and a spike in crime.  Most of the other council members jumped in saying they support the half-cent sales tax.  Matt Carlucci, the vice chair, told the council he believes in the end the half-cent sale tax is going to help the economy.  “This is going to do a lot of things, including create a lot of jobs. If they people don’t want it, they’ll let us know -- but this (is) no time to time to scale back on a school system that has so many needs,” Carlucci said.  Council member Joyce Morgan told everyone in the meeting that we don't know what the new normal will look like after we get through this pandemic and that now is the time to move forward for schools in Jacksonville.  In the end they voted 6-1 to move forward with putting the tax to pay for fixing schools on the November ballot.
  • From the chalkboard to the computer screen. The NFL draft has come full circle. What began in 1936 with team officials sitting in a hotel, selecting names written on a blackboard, will now enter the virtual world. In a memo sent to NFL teams Monday, Commissioner Roger Goodell said this year’s draft, scheduled for April 23-25, will be held in a virtual format, the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported in a tweet. Because team facilities have closed and the NFL canceled its plans to hold the draft in Las Vegas, its newest market, Goodell decided that teams can work the draft from their homes, The New York Times reported. That gives fantasy football geeks the chance to follow the draft online even more closely, instead of congregating in the auditoriums of venues where the draft has been held in previous years. The draft will still be televised, Goodell said. The NFL Network, ESPN and ABC will air the draft live. “Everyone recognizes that public health conditions are highly uncertain and there is no assurance that we can select a different date and be confident that conditions will be significantly more favorable than they are today,” Goodell wrote in the memo. 'I also believe that the draft can serve a very positive purpose for our clubs, our fans, and the country at large, and many of you have agreed. “Because of the unique circumstances in our country today, the 2020 draft will obviously need to be conducted in a different way. Already, we have canceled all public events, we will not be bringing prospects and their families to the draft, and the draft itself will be conducted and televised in a way that reflects current conditions.” The Cincinnati Bengals have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft after finishing 2-14 during the 2019 season.

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