Nelson Statement on NTSB’s Launch of a Second Search Mission to find El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder

February 11, 2016

The NTSB announced today that it will be sending a team of investigators back to the site of the cargo ship El Faro to search again for the ship’s missing data recorder. The decision comes less than a month after U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees the NTSB, sent a letter to the head of the agency asking that it consider another search.

Sen. Nelson spoke about the agency’s decision on the Senate floor this afternoon. Here’s a link to watch video of his remarks: 

A copy of Nelson’s letter to the NTSB is available here.  

Below is a transcript of Nelson’s remarks on the Senate floor, followed by a copy of the NTSB’s announcement:


U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson

Remarks on the Senate floor

February 11, 2016

Sen. Nelson: Late last year, a cargo ship carrying 33 men and women left Florida, the Port of Jacksonville, en route to Puerto Rico. It was a cargo container ship. It typically sailed back and forth carrying cargo to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico. But this time it sailed directly into the path of a hurricane.

Two days later, the crew sent what would be its final communication, reporting that the ship's engines were disabled and the vessel was left drifted and tilting, with no power, and it was straight in the path of the storm.

Subsequent to that, despite an exhaustive search-and-rescue attempt by the Coast Guard in the days that followed, the El Faro and her crew were never heard from again. Only in one case, in desperately trying to do a search-and-rescue mission, did they find one decomposed body in a bodysuit, but could not find anybody else.

Since then, the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency charged with investigating the incident, has been working tirelessly to understand what happened. Why would the ship leave port when they knew that there was a storm brewing and it was going to cross the path of where the ship was supposed to go? 

So, working with U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard, the investigators eventually found the ship's wreckage scattered at the bottom of the ocean east of the Bahama Islands in waters 15,000 feet deep. But what they didn't find that day was the ship’s voyage data recorder, or what we typically refer to as the ship’s black box, not unlike the black box that we look for in the case of an aircraft incident that records all of the data.

This voyage data recorder, it's a key piece to understanding since we have no survivors, it's a key piece to getting the information to understand this puzzle of why that ship would sail right into the hurricane. It records and it stores all of the ship's communications. And so finding it would shed light on what really happened onboard in those final hours.

Despite the search team’s exhaustive efforts to locate the data recorder amongst the scattered wreckage, they couldn't find it and eventually they had to call the search off.

Well, earlier this year, this senator wrote to the chairman of the NTSB and urged him to go back again, search again because finding the ship's data recorder is just too important for us to understand how these 33 human beings that have families back at home, how they were lost.

Well, Mr. President, I’m here to record that at this very minute, the NTSB is announcing that they're going back to do the search again. The NTSB is saying at this moment that it will resume the ship's search for the ship's black box, this time with the help of even more sophisticated equipment to help investigators pinpoint the approximate location of the recorder and hopefully if it's not among the wreckage of the ship, to pinpoint its location and pick it up off the ocean floor.

Mr. President, the NTSB ‘s decision today, which I commend and I thank the chairman for continuing to keep after this, their decision today to search again for the data recorder, it's a critical step in our understanding of what went so tragically wrong that day. We owe it not only to the families of the lost mariners aboard the El Faro but to the future safety of all those who travel on the high seas.

And, Mr. President, it's up to us to not only understand what happened but to do what we can to ensure that it doesn't happen in the future.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


From NTSB:


NTSB to Launch Second Search Mission to El Faro

February 11, 2016

WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board announced Thursday that it would launch a second expedition to search for evidence in its investigation of the loss of the cargo ship El Faro, which sank in the Atlantic during a hurricane on October 1, 2015.

A key objective of the upcoming mission, which is expected to begin in April and last about two weeks, is to locate the voyage data recorder (VDR) and to provide investigators with a more extensive and detailed survey of the shipwreck. The exact launch date will be announced later.

“The voyage data recorder may hold vital information about the challenges encountered by the crew in trying to save the ship,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “Getting that information could be very helpful to our investigation.”

The 790-foot ship was located in about 15,000 feet of water near the Bahamas on October 31.  Over the next few weeks the ship and the debris field were documented with a video camera mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Video revealed that the navigation bridge structure and the deck below it had separated from the ship. The missing structure included the mast and its base where the VDR was mounted.  Neither the mast nor the VDR was found in the vicinity of the navigation bridge structure. The initial search mission was completed on November 15.

After reviewing the data and video from the initial search, investigators shared findings with NTSB senior leadership who determined that a return mission to El Faro was warranted.

A search area of approximately 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles) will be photo- and video-documented by Sentry, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that will be launched from the research vessel Atlantis, which is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Sentry can work at depths of nearly 20,000 feet and can be equipped with a wide array of sonar, camera and other sensors.

A VDR of the type that was mounted on El Faro is capable of recording conversations and sounds on the navigation bridge, which could provide investigators with important evidence as they seek to understand the sequence of events that led to the sinking. In addition, investigators hope to obtain high quality images of the bridge, debris field, and hull.

If the VDR is located, another mission using a remotely operated vehicle capable of recovering the recorder will be initiated.

Sentry was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and designed and built at WHOI. It is operated through the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF), a center funded by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by WHOI. The NDSF operates, maintains, and coordinates the use of deep ocean research vehicles in coordination with the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), an organization of academic institutions and national laboratories involved in marine research.

The NTSB Office of Public Affairs (202-314-6100) will release all information about the search for the VDR and its investigation into the loss of El Faro

Information about the research vessel Atlantis is available at  Information about the AUV Sentry is available at Questions about the search equipment specifications and capabilities can be directed to WHOI Media Relations, (508-289-3340).