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Exploration of sunken El Faro awash in challenges

National Transportation Safety Board investigators pose in front of the CURV 21, which is being used to find out what happened to the El Faro.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators pose in front of the CURV 21, which is being used to find out what happened to the El Faro. Courtesy

At 15,000 feet deep, the wreck of the El Faro sits in one of the least-explored places on Earth, a lonely grave as deep as the Rocky Mountains are tall, with no light, crushing pressure, temperatures just above freezing and little life beyond microbes, giant worms and strange, tube-eyed fish.

Even the most advanced submarine can’t venture this deep.

In such daunting conditions, federal investigators have turned to a sophisticated unmanned submersible as they continue to search for clues to the sinking off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. The remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, is equipped with high-definition cameras to survey the ship’s hull and robotic arms able to cut cables and grab important evidence, such as the ship’s critical black box.

First developed by the Navy, the boxy ROV may be the last best hope for unraveling the El Faro’s fateful voyage and determining exactly why it sank last month, apparently within minutes of a final distress call, killing all 33 crew members.

“They’re very capable, but very complex to operate,” said Justin Manley, an MIT-trained ocean engineer who piloted the same cutting-edge ROV, called a CURV 21, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when it mapped the Titanic, perhaps history’s most famous shipwreck, in the icy North Atlantic 12,500 feet down.

Last week, after sonar detected the El Faro resting upright on the ocean floor north of Crooked Island in the Bahamas, the U.S. Navy ship Apache deployed the deep-diving robot to document the condition of the ship and locate the black box, called a voyage data recorder. The National Transportation Safety Board has so far released little information about its findings, other than to report that the ROV has inspected the port and starboard sides of the vessel and that the bridge, which contains the critical recorder, is no longer attached to the ship.

Finding the recorder is critical because, in addition to navigation data, it contains audio that could let investigators, and families, hear what the crew said during the ship’s last moments. Efforts to track its “pinger” signal across a 260 square-mile search area have so far failed.

There also is a possibility of recovering something that may bring some measure of comfort to families — bodies of the crew that went down with the ship.

“It’s a strange world of reality that has hit these families,” said John Moore, the Coral Gables attorney who is representing the families of two crew members. “They would like to have closure. I think recovering their loved ones is a step in that direction.”

But the chances of that happening are remote. NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said investigators do not plan on trying to enter the vessel and search teams have not yet located the bridge of the ship, where the captain and a portion of the crew would have been stationed during the El Faro’s battle with Category 3 Joaquin. Surveys of a large debris field continued this week in hopes of locating that important part of the ship.

So far, good weather has allowed the crew controlling the ROV and running sonar to work around-the-clock in 12-hour shifts, Knudson said. He initially expected would take 15 days depending on the weather.

Capable of diving to 20,000 feet, the CURV 21 is the latest model of the cable-operated vehicle developed by the Navy decades ago. Fewer than 50 exist, Manley said. They are regularly employed by the offshore energy industry but also have increasingly been used to try to unravel the mysteries of deep sea wrecks, including the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that crashed in the Indian Ocean in March 2014 and a U.S. Air Force F-16 that plunged into the North Pacific six years ago after the pilot ejected.

Capable of withstanding the harsh conditions in the ocean’s Abyssopelagic zone — the abyss part comes from the Greek word for bottomless — the CURV 21 can still be a bear to pilot. Manley compared it with standing atop the Empire State building and using a camera the size of a yo-yo, dangled from a string.

“It can be incredibly frustrating,” he said.

Investigators likely will start by sweeping the outside of the ship, something called “mowing the lawn,” to look for clues about the hull’s condition when the El Faro sank.

Ships as big as the El Faro — at 790 feet, it is twice the length of a football field — often have airtight compartments. They are designed to float, even if water starts leaking into one or more compartments, Moore said.

In his final message from the ship, Capt. Michael Davidson reported that the ship had lost propulsion and a hatch, or scuttle, had blown open, allowing water to enter one compartment. Davidson, who knew he was approaching a worsening hurricane and told his bosses at Tote Maritime Puerto Rico that he planned to sail 65 miles south of the storm, likely would have secured all the hatches.

“In this case, you have a crew that is well-trained judging from their maritime backgrounds and licensing. All evidence points to the ship itself as having deficiencies,” said Florida attorney Moore, who plans to fight a ruling this week in Jacksonville, Florida, federal court won by Tote to cap liability at about $15 million and set a December deadline for families to sue.

While the ship may have suffered some damage when it landed on the ocean floor, Moore said “a good forensic failure analysis expert” should be able to determine whether damage occurred from impact or on the surface as the listing ship drifted powerless within about 35 miles of Joaquin’s eye.

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