The voyage data recorder from the cargo ship El Faro, which sank in October during a hurricane off the Bahamas, was located on Tuesday in 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) of water, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said.
The recorder, which may contain hours of information related to the ship's engine and communications from its bridge before the sinking, was found using remotely operated undersea search equipment, the NTSB said.
All 33 El Faro crew members died in the disaster.
The 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro went down off the Bahamas on October 1 while on a cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico. It was the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
An earlier effort to find the recorder was not successful. Federal officials put hearings on the disaster on hold after two weeks in February, hoping that another search could retrieve the device and produce more detail.
The investigative team is comprised of specialists from the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Tote Services, the owner and operator of El Faro.
At about 1 a.m. EDT the team aboard the research vessel Atlantis located the El Faro’s mast where the VDR was mounted. After examining numerous images provided by undersea search equipment, the team positively identified the VDR.
“Finding an object about the size of a basketball almost three miles under the surface of the sea is a remarkable achievement,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “It would not have been possible without the information gained during the first survey of the wreckage and the equipment and support provided by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the University of Rhode Island, and the many other partners involved in this effort.”
The type of VDR mounted on El Faro is capable of recording conversations and sounds on the ship’s navigation bridge, which could provide investigators with important evidence as they seek to understand the sequence of events that led to the sinking.
The next step in the ongoing investigation is to determine how the VDR can be retrieved.
Immediately after the announcement, the U.S. Coast Guard said it would conduct a second set of hearings into the accident from May 16 to May 27, focusing broadly on topics including ship operations, weather conditions, and regulatory oversight.
The agency's Marine Board of Investigation plans a third hearing to examine additional evidence, including anything recovered from the voyage recorder, at an unscheduled date.
In his final transmissions, El Faro's captain reported that the ship was losing propulsion and taking on water.
Company executives have said the decision to attempt the voyage and set the ship's route, despite the weather forecast, were the responsibilities of the captain, who went down with his ship.