“Think this just got worse”: New portions of El Faro’s ‘black box’ transcribed

Jacksonville, FL — The transcript for the Voyage Date Recorder that was aboard El Faro was already the longest the NTSB had ever assembled, and now it had grown even more.

The NTSB says, since the initial release of the VDR- or black box- transcript in December 2016, investigators continued to gather facts and analyze information. They then held additional listening sessions, and that has now resulted in the release of four additional transcript sections.

VOYAGE DATA RECORDER: Details from the transcript of the crew's final hours

The new releases are brief, totaling less than three of the more than five hundred pages of the transcript overall. Despite that, they appear to speak directly to some of the areas investigators have been probing.

El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015, killing all 33 people on board. The ship was heavily loaded while transiting from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. It had taken on water, had a substantial list, and lost propulsion ahead of the Captain's final shoreside communication and, ultimately, the sinking.

FULL COVERAGE: The sinking of El Faro

The first insertion is a conversation between the Third Mate and Third Helmsman on El Faro at 11:43AM on September 30th, the day before El Faro sank. Leading up to this new addition the two spoke about a few things, including that a dentist had prescribed the Third Mate a narcotic- although it's unclear whether that was a current prescription or in the past. They spoke about drug testing and the potential to look "pretty happy". The conversation then turned to Hurricane Joaquin, with some shock at the wind gusts the storm was producing, but belief they wouldn't feel those peak conditions.

Then comes the new addition, where the Third Mate comments that the Port Engineer has one ship and questions what that position pays. The Third Mate further says he has no idea if the Port Engineer was a Chief Engineer prior or was even licensed.

“he really doesn’t seem to do anything or know anything.” says the Third Mate, according to the transcript.

The Third Helmsman then questions how many people “look important”, but don’t know what to do, and the Third Mate responded with a comment about salaries that wasn’t completely transcribed.

This exchange could speak to a few areas that investigators have been examining, including the competency, responsibility, and workload of some shoreside employees. There has also been an examination of crew morale, and questioning the abilities and salaries of someone in the corporate structure could speak to that.

GALLERY: Tributes to the El Faro crew

About 15 minutes later in the day- right around noon- is another new insertion, this time in a conversation between the Second Mate and the Second Helmsman. This portion directly preceeded the Second Mate saying El Faro needed to get where they were going “in one piece”.

“who cares what time we get there as long as we get there.” The transcript says.

The newly transcribed portion shows the two apparently looking at one of the readouts that mapped the ship and time. They appear to be tracking the ship’s location at different times over the coming hours.

There are various things talked about over the next two hours or so, but the third new transcript insertion comes around 1:40PM when concern was clearly building.

“think this just got worse.” the Second Mate said, according to the transcript.

The conversation immediately before and after those comments was not transcribed, so it’s unclear what specifically the Second Mate was speaking about, but the context indicates she is referring to Hurricane Joaquin or the ship’s track compared to the storm.  In the lead up to the new insertion, the Second Mate had been talking to the Captain about the storm and the potential to take an alternate route on the return journey. After the new portion, the Second Mate makes comments about the weather getting better when the ship moves past the storm.

The errors in the storm forecasting and problems with one of the ship's on board weather systems have been frequently scrutinized throughout the investigation. There have additionally been questions about whether the Captain was truly empowered to change the ship's route as he saw fit, or if he needed approval from officials on shore.

GALLERY: El Faro's wreckage

The final insertion was the morning of the sinking, around 5:45AM.

“we got cars loose. yeah.” The Captain said, according to the transcript.

The Captain made this remark soon after telling the Chief Mate to head down to check out flooding in a hold, which they believed to be the result of a blown scuttle. The transcript previously showed that cars had at least been bobbing in the water, and that there were some other cargo problems including some broken cords to refrigerated containers, leaning containers, and likely containers in the water.

Investigators have already raised significant questions about the lashing protocols, the calculations that were and were not being used in stacking, and the training cargo loading crews were given specific to the cargo protocols on each ship.

NTSB INVESTIGATION: Factual reports examine aspects of ship operations and sinking

The NTSB has already released several “Factual Reports” as part of their ongoing investigation. More are expected to be issued in the coming days and weeks, ahead of the release of their full report later this year.

The NTSB did issue ten recommendations dealing with mariner safety in June, despite the fact that their investigation was still ongoing. In presenting the recommendations, the NTSB noted they could have an impact specifically in the hurricane season, so they did not want to wait.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The quotes in this story come directly from the VDR transcript. We have inserted the quotes as they appear in the transcript, including in regard to capitalization.

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