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Multiple distress signals, but incomplete information, highlighted in El Faro data

Multiple distress signals, but incomplete information, highlighted in El Faro data

Multiple distress signals, but incomplete information, highlighted in El Faro data
Photo Credit: US Navy Supervisor of Salvage
El Faro's Voyage Data Recorder capsule being recovered from the ocean floor

Multiple distress signals, but incomplete information, highlighted in El Faro data

Among the more than two dozen hours of data and information collected on El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder, or ‘black box’, was electronic data on everything from navigation to ship position to weather information and more.

While the 510 page VDR transcript released by the NTSB was the longest ever put together by the Board, there were also hundreds of pages more made public detailing the facts that have been determined as a result of the investigation so far. One of those is the Electronic Data Group Chairman’s Factual Report, which details the electronic data captured by the VDR and other electronic communication both to and from the ship in the hours ahead of the sinking.

FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking

WOKV is working through those reports to bring you all the new information, as well as the context we’ve previously learned from the investigation so far.

Voyage Data Recorder

The NTSB says the most recent annual inspection for El Faro’s VDR was in December 2014. We previously learned through the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation that’s holding public hearing sessions on the sinking that the VDR’s beacon battery may have been expired at the time of the sinking, meaning the device wouldn’t have pinged to be located by search and rescue or subsequent salvage teams. The new Electronic Data Group Chairman’s report says the inspection also listed the wrong serial number for the VDR’s data acquisition unit that saves data to the capsule, listed an incorrect date for the next inspection, and was using an outdated checklist altogether.

The VDR was unable to be located during the initial search mission where the ship’s wreckage was found. It was located on a second mission, and salvaged on a third about six months ago.

Weather data

A question that has come up through the MBI hearing so far is how exactly emails and other information transmitted through satellite connection was getting on to the ship- whether there was a free flow, if it was sent directly to the Captain, if there were scheduled times, or any other option. This was a key question specifically with weather data, as investigators seek to figure out whether the crew was directly able to get updated information as they needed it.

The NTSB report shows outgoing and incoming email messages were transmitted to or from El Faro during active data sessions using FleetBroadband. The connection is established through a computer in the Captain’s stateroom, and can be configured to work on demand as well as at scheduled times during the day. The report says crewmembers of El Faro’s sister ship believed the emails synched periodically, as long as the computer was running. Even with satellite connection, there is still a question of whether weather data was sent directly to the Captain or was accessible to crew as well. That is further examined in the NTSB Meteorology Group Chairman’s Factual Report, which WOKV will detail later this week.

GALLERY: Exhibits from the NTSB's factual reports

Emails were also archived through GlobeArchive, although there is no read receipt, so the record only reflects when the messages are sent. The report says investigators were able to use the archives for information on position, forecasts, route planning, maintenance history, and more.

With weather data, there are still questions unanswered in this report. El Faro used a few resources for weather data, including the Bon Voyage System, which takes National Hurricane Center weather data and other factors, process that, and superimpose it to a map to give a detailed look at the conditions the ship would face. We’ve previously learned that, shortly before the sinking, El Faro was working with data that was 21 hours old at one point because of a one-time glitch that resulted in a duplicated track being sent to the ship.

This NTSB report shows that, on the final voyage, BVS data was routinely available to be downloaded a minute or two after it was sent, but there was a lag of anywhere between about twenty minutes and several hours before it was actually downloaded by the crew. That includes a five hour and forty-one minute lapse overnight ahead of the sinking, between when the data was available 11:04 PM September 30 and when it was downloaded 4:45 AM October 1. Investigators say it’s not clear whether that lapse was a deliberate action of the crew or a result of the schedule for satellite connection.

El Faro's anemometer captured data, however conversations by the crew on the bridge which were captured by the VDR show the crew had no confidence in the information from that tool.

Voice communication

There was a voice phone line on El Faro, with connections on the bridge, in the Captain’s stateroom, and in the Chief Engineer’s stateroom. We previously told you about the Captain’s final shoreside communications, where he described a “marine emergency” to TOTE’s emergency response answering service. The NTSB now says there were 26 incoming calls to the ship’s telephone that morning that went unanswered, with later ones showing on the call logs as “subscriber absent”.

Distress signals

El Faro’s distress alerts were received by authorities through three sources: Inmarsat-C distress alert, ship’s security alert system (SASS), and emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB).

The ship’s location was inaccurately recorded because of problems with how information from the Inmarsat-C distress alert from El Faro was pushed through the appropriate channels, according to the report.  It was received by an operating station in Norway and forwarded to the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command Center in Norfolk. The Inmarsat satellite operator in Norway then sent a supplemental, but separate bulletin with contact information for the ship. The Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command Center received both emails, but then only forwarded the supplement to the Coast Guard rescue coordination center in Miami, meaning Miami didn’t get information on the ship’s course, speed, or the time it was reported. The report says an inaccurate primary location for El Faro was logged as a result of this missing data.

The MBI also revealed that Coast Guard search and rescue teams were facing a compounded issue because, in addition to the incomplete data being passed forward to them, recent upgrades to their systems resulted in computers locking up, the need to chart data by hand, and other “frustrations”.

Two emergency notifications were received through the SSAS with information on position, course, and more. It’s a discreet security alert sent to predetermined recipients that is not broadcast to other ships.

The EPIRB broadcasts on the distress frequency, sending a transmission once every fifty seconds which is detected by satellites and used for search and rescue. El Faro’s EPIRB did not have GPS encoding, so the first detection was an “unlocated alert”. There was a 24 minute window before the last distress signal was detected, and no satellites passed overhead to get a location reading during that window.

Looking forward

WOKV has already brought you details from the Engineering Group Chairman’s Factual Report, and check back tomorrow for insight on the survival factors that have become a focus of these ongoing investigations.

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