‘Black box’ key to revealing why El Faro sunk

Maine Maritime Academy students attend a vigil of hope for the missing crew of El Faro. Picture: AP
Maine Maritime Academy students attend a vigil of hope for the missing crew of El Faro. Picture: AP
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INVESTIGATORS trying to determine why a 790-foot cargo ship stalled and sank in the howling winds of Hurricane Joaquin will be searching for a brightly colored device bolted to the deck and pinging away in the blackness and pressure of the 15,000-foot-deep sea.

Authorities say the El Faro’s voyage data recorder, similar to the “black box” on an aircraft, would provide a wealth of data on what befell the ship and the 33 people aboard in the hours before it is believed to have gone down. The ship itself has not yet been located.

Recovering the recorder at such depths could be challenging. Assuming the device can be located, the National Transportation Safety Board will work with the coastguard, navy and other agencies to devise a way to bring it up, probably by using a robotic, remote-controlled submersible capable of diving great depths.

“We want to find every bit of information that we possibly can,” NTSB vice chair Bella Dinh-Zarr said. “We will be here as long as it takes.”

The El Faro lost power and went down in 15,000ft of water east of the Bahamas last Thursday while attempting to outrun Hurricane Joaquin on its normal route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico, the coastguard and ship owner Tote Maritime have said.

The captain reported the ship was listing and taking on water through an open hatch. Then transmissions ceased.

An intensive search over tens of thousands of square miles of ocean turned up one unidentified body in a survival suit as well as large amounts of debris, including a heavily damaged life boat – but no sign of survivors. The coastguard announced it was suspending the search at dusk on Wednesday.

“Any decision to suspend a search is painful,” said coastguard Captain Mark Fedor. “They did all they could.”

Hope was fading among family members that survivors might be found.

“The ship went down. And there’s no questioning the outcome of that. The ship has gone down, took everybody with it. There’s really no speculation to be made,” said Mary Shevory, mother of crew member Mariette Wright.