Investigators Find Navigation Bridge of El Faro

The Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) is fueled before departing Norfolk, Virginia, Oct. 19, 2015, to begin searching for wreckage from the missing U.S. flagged merchant vessel El Faro. (US Navy photo)
The Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) is fueled before departing Norfolk, Virginia, Oct. 19, 2015, to begin searching for wreckage from the missing U.S. flagged merchant vessel El Faro. (US Navy photo)

MIAMI -- Federal investigators on Thursday said they have found a key section of the El Faro, a cargo ship sunk by Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas last month, but a search team is still looking for a recording device that may help explain the ship's sinking.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced that U.S. Navy ship Apache, equipped with sonar devices and deep-diving submersibles, had located the ship's navigation bridge, where the captain and some of the crew would have been stationed as the El Faro drifted toward the eye of the Category 3 hurricane after losing power.

The search mission mounted by the NTSB found most of the hull two weeks ago, sitting intact and upright 15,000 feet under water -- about 2,000 feet deeper than the Titanic -- near Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

The NTSB tweeted that searchers still have not located the all-important voyage data recorder or VDR. The recorder collects information, like ship data and communications, as well as conversations on the bridge, that could be useful in determining why the ship sank.

"We were sent out to find the vessel, verify that it was the vessel and find the VDR," said Eric Weiss, spokesman for the NTSB. "We're still looking for the VDR."

The search is currently contained within the debris field of the ship, which spans about a mile and a half.

Since the initial discovery, the bulk of the ship was searched by a remote-controlled vehicle, called a CURVE-21, that can work deep underwater, withstanding pressures up to 20,000 feet. The 6,400-pound robot has a high-resolution camera and video capabilities in both color and black-and-white.

NTSB officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

In early October, the 790-foot-long cargo ship was swallowed, along with its crew of 33, by the 130 mph winds and towering seas of Hurricane Joaquin. The ship lost power during its weekly run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico as it was on a course that many experts believe would take it dangerously close to a growing hurricane.

NTSB officials later announced a hull had been breached and a hatch was blown. The Coast Guard received a few distress signals, but the hurricane conditions blocked a rescue and delayed the search for four days after the ship sank. So far only a single body was found but not retrieved.

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