MIAMI — A U.S. Navy search and rescue vessel was to leave port in Virginia for the Bahamas on Monday afternoon to search for an American cargo ship that sank in a hurricane earlier this month, a Navy spokesman said.
The El Faro and its 33 crew members disappeared Oct. 1 after sailing into the path of Hurricane Joaquin while en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico in the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.
The salvage operation is being conducted at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation of the El Faro’s sinking.
The mission of the Navy’s ocean tug vessel, the Apache, will be to recover the ship’s voyage data recorder, similar to the black box on airplanes, which preserves the last 12 hours of engine orders and communications from the bridge, said Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Chris Johnson.
The Apache is equipped with a “hydrophone” underwater listening device that can detect pulses emitted by the voyage data recorder, as well as an Orion sonar system able to locate large objects, such as shipwrecks.
The Apache will spend the next month searching an area of 100 square miles in water up to about 15,000 feet deep just off Crooked Island in the southern Bahamas, Johnson said.
“Our equipment is designed for up to 20,000 feet, so we are well within our range,” he said.
“We are pretty confident of the last known position of the ship,” he added.
The 226-foot Apache is carrying diving and salvage experts, as well as a team from the NTSB and the American Bureau of Shipping, responsible for marine inspections, Johnson said.
The voyage data recorder, which is attached to the ship’s bridge, has a battery life of 30 days, giving the search team less than two weeks before it runs out. Assuming it was not damaged when the ship went down, the VDR can preserve data without the battery, according to maritime experts.
The El Faro, a 790-foot container ship, was last heard from on the morning of Oct. 1 when the captain communicated that the ship had taken on water, was listing at 15 degrees and had lost propulsion.
The U.S. Coast Guard called off a search and rescue mission after finding only one body amid debris from the ship.