Can a Data Recorder Solve the Mystery of El Faro?

A device plucked from 15,000 feet under the sea could help investigators understand why the cargo ship went down last October, killing 33 people.


NEWS BRIEF Late Monday evening, more than 10 months after El Faro sank east of the Bahamas, a crew recovered the vessel’s data recorder, which investigators and family members hope will offer some clues into how and why the cargo ship went down.

“The recovery of the recorder has the potential to give our investigators greater insight into the incredible challenges that the El Faro crew faced, but it’s just one component of a very complex investigation,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a statement.

El Faro’s early October disappearance was unusual, as I reported at the time: Although big ships run aground and even sink, few simply go down, even when sailing through hurricanes, as El Faro was. A U.S. Navy crew found the ship’s wreckage on October 31, and in January, the National Transportation Safety Board released ghostly images of the ship on the ocean floor, under 15,000 feet of water. But the ship’s data recorder, similar to the black box on airplanes, was not found with the vessel.

Senator Bill Nelson, the Democrat from Florida, the ship’s home, who sits on the Senate committee that oversees the NTSB, urged the agency to do more to recover the recorder. In April, a new expedition found the recorder near the wreckage. “Finding an object about the size of a basketball almost three miles under the surface of the sea is a remarkable achievement,” Hart said at the time. But it took several more months to mount the expedition to actually retrieve it.

The recorder should provide investigators with information about the ship’s course, and it also records communications on the ship’s bridge. NTSB said recorders are required to maintain at least 12 hours of recording, though they sometimes include more. Investigators have also been working to suss out other information about the ship, including touring its sister ship.

El Faro was found upright, but the bridge had been ripped off, which experts suggested was a sign of a fast and violent sinking. Beyond the hurricane, there’s been little indication why the ship went down, though lawyers for the families of crew members have sued its owner alleging El Faro was not seaworthy. El Faro’s 33 crew members were killed in the wreck, but only one body was recovered. NTSB said Tuesday it had no further missions planned to the site.

“There were no human remains found whatsoever, and no personal effects whatsoever," lead investigator Tom Roth-Roffy told the AP in January. “I think we found one boot.”