Navy Tug Prepares to Sail for El Faro VDR Recovery

The El Faro's VDR on the seabed (courtesy NTSB)

By The Maritime Executive 2016-08-01 21:19:38

The Navy tug Apache is preparing to return to the Bahamas to conduct a long-anticipated mission – the recovery of the voyage data recorder of the lost con/ro El Faro, which may hold important clues to the ship's final hours. 

As of Monday evening, the Apache was moored at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, near Norfolk, Virginia, and the NTSB said that she will depart for the wreck site sometime this week. The voyage will take her three to four days, and she is scheduled to be back at her berth on August 16. 

The El Faro sits in nearly three miles of water, a depth that is challenging for subsea equipment. The Apache located the wreck last year, but did not find the VDR, which was torn from the bridge along with the mast it was mounted on; a return trip with sophisticated search equipment proved successful, and the VDR was found, but the submersible used for the survey work was not equipped with manipulators to pick up the device and bring it to the surface. Before Apache sails this week, she will be loaded out with the submersible CURV-21, which has the capability to recover the recorder.

Once recovered, the VDR will be brought to a National Transportation Safety Board laboratory for analysis. If intact and functional, the VDR should contain 12 hours of bridge audio, VHF comms, radar screen frames, AIS broadcast data, position, speed and heading. Its rated depth exceeds El Faro's by about 5,000 feet. 

The NTSB plans a third round of hearings about the loss of the vessel once evidence from the VDR is recovered. The last two rounds have been contentious; the NTSB lead investigator, Tom Roth-Roffy, resigned from the agency several weeks after the second round, following what was widely interpreted as a confrontation with the vessel's operator.