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NTSB Recovers Voyage Data Recorder from Sunken Cargo Ship 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)

The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it has recovered the cargo ship El Faro's voyage data recorder, which could help answer why the ship sank near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin last fall.

All 33 crew members -- including two with Hampton Roads ties -- died after the 790-foot ship sank Oct. 1 on its way from Jacksonville, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The basketball-size recorder is important because it contains audio from the navigation bridge and information about the El Faro's speed and heading. The audio could hold as much as 14 hours of recordings.

The recorder was discovered in November in about 15,000 feet of water, but the Virginia Beach-based USNS Apache didn't have the right equipment at the time to cut it from the ship's mast. A special remotely operated underwater vehicle that can work in deep water was deployed aboard the Apache this time to cut it loose. The recorder was brought aboard the Apache on Monday night.

"The recovery of the recorder has the potential to give our investigators greater insight into the incredible challenges the El Faro crew faced," NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a statement. "But it's just one component of a very complex investigation. There is still a great deal of work to be done in order to understand how the many factors converged that led to the sinking and tragic loss of 33 lives."

The victims include the ship's chief cook, 32-year-old Jacksonville resident LaShawn Rivera, who is the father of two children in Chesapeake and was engaged to their mother. The ship's chief engineer was 34-year-old Virginia Beach resident Richard Pusatere, a married father of one.

The NTSB said its investigators will examine the voyage data recorder aboard the Apache to ensure it is properly preserved. After the Apache returns later this week to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, the recorder will be taken to an NTSB laboratory in Washington where specialists will examine it.

The NTSB said it's unclear how long the data review will take, but it likely will be months. While on-board investigators examine the recorder, others aboard the Apache were expected to take additional photographs and videos of the El Faro wreckage and debris field. The NTSB is not expected to return to the site.

The NTSB and Coast Guard are conducting separate investigations into the ship's sinking but are working together to answer questions. The Coast Guard has held two sets of hearings in Jacksonville. Once data and audio are extracted from the recorder, a third set of hearings is planned.

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