The mission to recover the El Faro's voyage data recorder will be undertaken this week when a remotely operated underwater vehicle will try to retrieve the device from the ship's wreckage, resting 3 miles below the surface of the ocean near the Bahamas.
Recovery of the data recorder from the sunken cargo vessel will be closely watched here in Maine because several El Faro crew members, including its captain, either lived in Maine or had ties to Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
The ship sank on Oct. 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin. El Faro lost propulsion in the middle of the Category 4 hurricane.
The voyage data recorder should contain valuable navigational data and the final 12 hours of audio from the El Faro's bridge, information that could bring victims' families and investigators a sense of closure about what happened that day.
Data stored on the device should still be intact as it was designed to withstand the pressure of being submerged under as much as 20,000 feet of water. The National Transportation Safety Board says the wreckage from the ship is located in 15,000 feet of water, about 41 miles northeast of Crooked Islands, Bahamas
"We're hopeful that the information contained in the voyage data recorder will provide insights into the circumstances of the ship's sinking," Brian Curtis, acting director of the NTSB's Office of Marine Safety, said in a statement.
The crew of the Military Sealift Command's ocean tug USNS Apache left Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Friday and is expected to arrive Tuesday at the accident site, where it will begin recovery efforts using the CURV-21, a robotic vehicle designed to operate in deep ocean environments. CURV-21 weighs 6,400 pounds and can operate in depths of up to 20,000 feet.
In the first search mission after the disaster, investigators located the ship and related debris field in November, but were unable to find the voyage data recorder.
In April, the research vessel Atlantis located the El Faro's mast about a half-mile away. The voyage data recorder was mounted on the mast.
"Finding an object the size of a basketball almost three miles under the surface of the sea is a remarkable achievement," NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said at the time.
The estimated cost of this week's mission is $500,000, bringing the total cost of all three missions to $3 million, according to an NTSB news release.
The 790-foot, U.S.-flagged cargo ship sank during a voyage from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. All 33 crew members aboard perished.
El Faro's captain, Michael Davidson, 53, lived in Windham, and was a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, as were crew members Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton and Danielle Randolph, 34, and Dylan Meklin, 23, both of Rockland.
A fifth crew member, Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York, also was a graduate of MMA.
Though the Apache's primary mission this week will be to recover the voyage data recorder, the CURV-21 robot will also do additional wreckage documentation.
Once the voyage data recorder has been recovered, the Apache will dock at Mayport, Florida. The mission is expected to take about a week to complete.
The voyage data recorder will be taken to the NTSB laboratory, where the information will be downloaded and analyzed.
The El Faro was owned by Sea Star Line LLC and operated by Tote Services. The sinking was the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
The maritime tragedy remains under investigation by the Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation. The board will convene a third hearing session once it has been determined whether there is any usable information on the voyage data recorder.