NTSB: El Faro audio includes captain's abandon ship order

AP News
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Posted: Aug 24, 2016 5:29 PM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The captain of the doomed freighter El Faro ordered his crew to abandon ship about 10 hours after leaving a Florida port and becoming caught in a hurricane last year, audio from the sunken ship's "black box" shows.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday it recovered 26 hours of information from the ship's recorder, including bridge audio from the final hours.

The El Faro sank last Oct. 1 in 15,000-feet of water near the Bahamas after losing propulsion in the storm. All 33 aboard died.

"Numerous events leading up to the loss of the El Faro are heard on the ... audio, recorded from microphones on the ship's bridge," the agency said in a news release. Crews recovered the voyage data recorder earlier this month using a remote-controlled submarine.

The recording starts at 5:37 a.m. the fateful day, about 8 hours after the ship left the port of Jacksonville for Puerto Rico.

Capt. Michael Davidson and his crew can be heard discussing flooding and the increasing list — or tilt — of the 790-foot-long ship as Hurricane Joaquin battered it with strong winds and massive waves, the NTSB said.

Davidson had called ashore just after 7 a.m., telling an operator who took the call that he had a hull breach when a hatch blew open, according to a recording played during U.S. Coast Guard investigative hearings earlier this year. He said there was water in a hold and the ship had a list.

"The clock is ticking," Davidson told the operator.

The NTSB said the data recorder shows the captain called orders to abandon ship and sounded the alarm about 7:30 a.m. that day. NTSB says the recording ends minutes later.

The 40-year-old ship had open lifeboats unlike more modern ships. It was also due for maintenance the next month before being retired from the Puerto Rico trade.

In additions to the "voices-from-the-grave" audio that the ship's data recorder provides, it also recorded weather and navigational data that will help investigators piece together El Faro's final hours in a way they could not have previously.

NTSB didn't release the audio, but is working on a transcript for later release. It said some of the audio is degraded because of background noise, so that transcribing it accurately will be time-consuming.

So far, settlements between crew members' families and the ship's owner, Tote Services, Inc., have been reached in at least 21 of the 33 cases, the Florida Times-Union newspaper has reported recently.