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El Faro Voyage Data Recorder Transcript, Factual Reports, Added to NTSB Docket

The transcript from the El Faro’s voyage data recorder bridge audio was one of five factual reports added Tuesday to the NTSB’s El Faro investigation docket as part of the agency’s ongoing investigation into the maritime tragedy.

Entered into the docket were factual reports from the Electronic Data Group, Meteorology Group, Survival Factors Group, Engineering Group and the Voyage Data Recorder Audio Transcript Group.

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart was joined by the agency’s Director of the Office of Research and Engineering, James Ritter, and Brian Curtis, Director of the Office of Marine Safety, in a press briefing in which they described the documents within the docket and provided highlights of the information contained within the docket.

The Engineering Group Factual Report contains information about the El Faro’s machinery system, a description and history of the vessel, maintenance histories for the plant, survey and inspection information, the vessel’s safety management system, and information about the training and experience of the El Faro’s engineering staff. 

The Survival Factors Group Factual Report contains information about the U.S. Coast Guard’s search efforts, the El Faro’s survival equipment, crew preparedness, lifeboat standards and regulations, and information about distress transmissions.

The Electronic Data Group Factual Report provides a system overview and discussion of data recovered from the El Faro’s voyage data recorder and other onboard electronic systems.  The ship’s voyage data recorder captured 26 hours of data in 11 parameters leading up to the sinking of the vessel.  The 11 parameters were:

  • Bridge Audio
  • Date
  • Time
  • VDR power supply status
  • Position and other GPS data
  • Heading
  • Course
  • Speed
  • Rate of Turn
  • Wind data
  • Automatic Identification System data

The Meteorology Group Factual Report provides information about what meteorological information was available to the El Faro’s crew.

The Voyage Data Recorder Audio Transcript Group Factual Report contains the transcript of the discernable and relevant bridge audio captured by the VDR.  Members of the group included the NTSB, the U.S. Coast Guard and Tote Services – the owner of the El Faro

The NTSB considers the information captured in the VDR’s bridge audio recording critical to determining the events leading up to the loss of the El Faro.  The bridge audio was characterized as “poor quality” and contains high levels of background noise; however, this is not considered unusual.  There were six microphones positioned throughout the El Faro’s bridge.  Extensive digital audio filtering was necessary to enhance the audio.  The entire 26-hour recording was reviewed many times, with some statements reviewed more than 100 times by the VDR audio transcript group to ensure they understood what was being said in the recording.  About 10 hours of audio was determined to be relevant to the investigation and therefore transcribed by the VDR audio transcript group.  The transcript required more than 1,100 work hours to complete.  The transcript report is more than 500 pages and is the longest transcript ever produced by the NTSB.

This graphic, released by the NTSB Dec. 13, 2016, depicts the locations of the El Faro Oct. 1, 2015, relative to the locations of Hurricane Joaquin.  The El Faro sank Oct. 1, 2015, and all 33 crewmembers perished in the accident.  The NTSB added five factual reports Dec. 13, 2016, to the docket for the investigation of the sinking of the El Faro, including the transcript of the El Faro’s voyage data recorder.  (NTSB graphic)

The following is a summary of the characterization of the bridge audio transcript.

The bridge audio recording began about 5:37 a.m., Sept. 30, 2015, roughly eight hours after the El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida. 

The first recorded conversation about the forecasted weather was captured the morning of Sept. 30, between the captain and chief mate, who agreed on a course diversion they believed would keep them sufficiently clear of the eye of Hurricane Joaquin.  There were multiple conversations regarding weather and route planning throughout the day and evening of Sept. 30. 

The captain departed the bridge at about 8 p.m. Sept. 30, and returned at about 4:10 a.m. Oct 1.  At about 4:37 a.m. the chief mate received a phone call from the chief engineer regarding the vessel’s list and engine oil levels.  This appears to be the first recorded conversation about these issues.  The information was related to the captain.  The alternate chief engineer is heard stating at about 5:12 a.m. that he’s never seen the ship with such a list.

At about 5:43 a.m. the captain takes a phone call and indicates there is a problem in the number three hold of the ship and sends the chief mate to investigate.  They discuss suspected flooding over UHF radio, which appears to be the first recorded conversation about a flooding condition on the ship .

The captain indicates at about 6:13 a.m. that the ship lost propulsion.  Numerous conversations are heard throughout the remainder of the recording about the ship’s flooding condition, attempts to rectify the ship’s list and attempts to regain propulsion. 

The second mate began formatting a GMDSS distress message at about 6:32 a.m. as directed by the captain.  At 7:07 a.m. the captain notified Tote Service’s designated shoreside representative of the critical situation and that he was preparing to send an electronic distress signal.  The captain instructed the second mate to send the distress message at about 7:13 a.m.  The captain gave the command to sound the ship’s general alarm at about 7:27 a.m. and about two minutes later the second mate exclaimed there were containers in the water and the captain gave the command to sound the abandon ship alarm.  About four minutes later the captain relayed over the UHF radio to put the life rafts in the water. 

The bridge audio recording ended at about 7:40 a.m. Oct. 1, 2015, with the captain and one of the helmsmen still present on the bridge.

 

Source: NTSB

 

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