The search for clues into the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro resumes today as National Transportation Safety Board tries again to retrieve the vessel’s data recorder.
El Faro sank near the Bahamas during the Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin in late September early October.
All 33 crew members were killed when the 41-year-old ship went down.
The safety board initially halted searches for the data recorder earlier this year after they proved fruitless. But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked that the search be restarted because of the need to understand what happened in the tragedy.
“The ship’s data recorder is just too important,” Nelson said in February.
In negligence lawsuits filed in federal court by families of the crew, maritime experts debate the path from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico chosen by El Faro’s captain and whether he followed early forecasts that proved faulty or purposefully drove head-on into the storm.
Hurricane Joaquin was a notoriously difficult storm to forecast.
“I don’t know what the captain was thinking, but maybe he did put too much faith in the initial ideas of what this storm was going to do and thought it would be long gone by the time he got to where it was,” said Dan Kottlowski, a senior meteorologist and hurricane expert with the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather. “Initially, we thought this thing would move northwest and not bother land at all, but it went southwest.”
The second El Faro search beginning today is being conducted with the National Science Foundation and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The research vessel Atlantis will search the accident site for 10 days carrying an autonomous underwater vehicle to search for the data recorder.
While the El Faro wreckage was found in November, the upper two decks of the ship, including the navigation bridge, were sheared from the ship’s hull. They were found about a half mile away on the ocean floor. The main mast of El Faro and the data recorder were not found.
Joaquin was unusual in that it evolved from a non-tropical, upper-level low-pressure system instead of a tropical wave more common during hurricane season.
That early quirk was key because it is rare for systems with non-tropical features to become major hurricanes. Meteorologists first noted the emerging system Sept. 8 west of the Canary Islands but, according to the NHC report, “forecasters were unable to recognize that tropical cyclone formation was even a possibility until 48 hours before genesis occurred.”