By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. safety investigators are launching a second search off the Bahamas on Monday for a data recorder from the El Faro, the cargo ship that sank last October during a hurricane, killing all 33 crew members.
The recorder, similar to an airplane’s black box, may contain hours of information related to the ship’s engine and communications from its bridge before the sinking. It was the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged cargo vessel in more than three decades.
The research vessel Atlantis, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, was scheduled to leave Charleston, South Carolina, on a 10-day search of the accident site. The search area is approximately 13.5 square miles (35 square kilometers), according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the investigation.
Federal hearings on the disaster were put on hold after two weeks in February in hopes that search teams could retrieve the device and produce detailed evidence about the Oct. 1 sinking.
The 790-foot El Faro, owned by Sea Star Line LLC, and operated by TOTE Services, was making its weekly cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico when it sank. In his last transmissions, the captain reported the ship was losing propulsion and taking on water.
Company executives have said the decision to attempt the voyage despite the weather forecast and to determine the ship's route were the responsibilities of the captain, who went down with his ship.
An initial search for the recorder ended in November after a salvage team located the wreckage three miles down. The navigational bridge deck, where the recorder was mounted, was found half a mile away from the main debris field, but the recorder was missing.
The Atlantis will make use of an underwater vehicle to search the ocean floor, according to an NTSB statement.
In the first two weeks of hearings before the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation, shipping company executives described how they paid little attention to the El Faro’s voyage or the storm because of a company policy leaving operational decisions to the ship captain.
If the recorder is not found, the hearings are expected to resume in early summer. The board aims to determine why the accident occurred, and if any new laws or regulations are needed to prevent a recurrence.
The panel will also look for evidence of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty, including any criminal culpability, the Coast Guard said.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Dan Grebler)