El Faro search shifts to salvage operation, voyage data recorder sought

A U.S. Navy salvage unit will join the search for the wreckage of the El Faro cargo ship that went missing during Hurricane Joaquin, a source close to the investigation said.

The National Transportation Safety Board requested the vessel head to the search site and survey the area to pinpoint the ship’s location.

The hope is to mobilize the salvage unit by the end of the week, the source said.

Crews have honed the search area down to two debris fields — one about 345 square miles near the El Faro’s last-known location (36 miles to the northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas) and one 81 square miles located 69 miles north of that position.

Search for survivors ends

The U.S. Coast Guard called off its nearly weeklong search for the missing crew of the container ship at sundown Wednesday.

“Any decision to end a search is painful,” Capt. Mark Fedor said. “We’ve been baptized in the same salt waters.”

Thirty-three people were on board El Faro. One body was found in the water Sunday, the Coast Guard has said.

Two family members who had relatives aboard the ship told CNN that the Coast Guard had informed them of the decision Wednesday afternoon.

The president of the company that owns the 790-foot long, 40-year-old ship pledged to help those affected by the tragedy.

“While the search might be over, our support and commitment to the families and loved ones and friends of those on board has not ended nor will it,” Tote Incorporated President Anthony Chiarello said.

Data recorder

An important part of the salvage operation will be the recovery of the voyage data recorder, according to Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman with the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency leading the investigation.

The recorder, which captures on board audio from the bridge as well as the ship’s course and speed, would’ve begun pinging once it was submerged in water. It has a battery life of 30 days, Dinh-Zarr said.

Remotely operated underwater vehicles will be able to retrieve the recorder once it’s located, she said.

Captain’s plan: Avoid the storm

The owners of El Faro insist Capt. Michael Davidson had a “sound plan” to avoid Hurricane Joaquin — a plan that only unraveled when the ship’s main propulsion stopped working.

The captain had real-time weather information when he left the port in Jacksonville for Puerto Rico and reported favorable conditions at the outset, Tote Services President Phil Greene told reporters.

Given the weather system, the captain’s “plan was a sound plan that would have enabled him to clearly pass around the storm with a margin of comfort that was adequate in his professional opinion,” Greene said.

A friend of the captain agrees with the assessment, describing Davidson as a capable and experienced mariner.

“My guess is that he saw that he could outrun the storm, providing everything went right,” Larry Legere, of Maine, said.

But the ship’s main propulsion failed, the ship’s owners say, stranding the crew in the path of the storm.

Authorities have found debris, but have not seen the ship nor any survivors since the cargo vessel lost contact near the Bahamas on Thursday — just as Hurricane Joaquin was churning through the area.

Why risk it?

But knowing that a potential hurricane was brewing, why was El Faro allowed to go ahead with its scheduled route?

Tote officials said they trust the company’s captains to be the decision makers, and that up until El Faro lost its propulsion, the reports were not alarming.

The captain sent an email to headquarters September 30 saying he was aware of the “weather condition” — the increasingly powerful Hurricane Joaquin — and that he was monitoring its track, though conditions where the ship was “looked very favorable,” Greene said.

But the next day, El Faro lost propulsion right in the path of the hurricane, Fedor said.

“They were disabled right by the eye of Hurricane Joaquin,” Fedor said Tuesday.

“If they were able to abandon ship and put on their survival suits, they would have been abandoning ship into that Category 4 hurricane. So you’re talking about 140-mile-an-hour winds, 50-foot seas, zero visibility. It’s a very dire situation, a very challenging situation even for the most experienced mariner.”

Complicating matters, the cargo ship was outfitted with older lifeboats which are not enclosed, the source close to the investigation said. Given the extreme conditions, the lifeboats could have been more easily swamped than their replacements.

What knocked out the ship’s propulsion?

The captain told his company that El Faro was disabled, but “did not explain in his communication why he had lost propulsion,” Greene said. “He indicated that he had had a navigational incident.”

The ship was also listing, leaning 15 degrees to the side.

Fedor said there was a report that a hatch in the deck of the ship had been open and water had gotten in, tipping the ship.

“I’m not certain of the circumstances, why it was open,” he said. “But that’s where the water came from.”

It was also unknown how much time lapsed between the time the propulsion failed and the time the captain reported the problem to his bosses.

“Based on evaluating the position of the ship when the captain reported (the propulsion failure), he was in the path of the storm,” Greene said.

“I think what is regrettable on this is the fact that the vessel did become disabled in the path of the storm, and that is what (ultimately) led to the tragedy.”

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