A search team on board the USNS Apache has found the wreckage of a vessel they believe to be the container ship El Faro which went missing off the Bahamas on October 1 near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported on October 31.
NTSB said that sonar equipment towed from Apache first detected what are believed to be images of the vessel using Orion, a side-scanning sonar system, at about 1:36 p.m. local time on October 31, during the fifth of 13 planned search line surveys. The vessel was located at a depth of 15,000 feet.
To confirm the finding, specialists on Apache will use CURV 21, a deep ocean remotely operated vehicle, to survey and confirm the identity of the wreckage. This survey could begin as early as Sunday, November 1, according to NTSB.
The target identified by Orion is consistent with a 790-foot cargo ship, which from sonar images appears to be in an upright position and in one piece.
Shortly after NTSB opened its investigation into the accident, it contracted with the U.S. Navy to locate the missing ship, document the wreckage and debris field, and if possible, recover the voyage data recorder.
On October 23, after arriving at the last known position of El Faro, specialists on Apache placed a towed pinger locator (TPL) into the water and began slowly traversing the area according to a preset search pattern in hopes of picking up sounds of the pinger from El Faro’s voyage data recorder.
After three days without any indication of a pinger signal, the TPL was withdrawn from the ocean and Orion was put in the water in an attempt to locate El Faro with sonar technology, which creates sonar images from the processing of sound patterns.
If the vessel is confirmed to be El Faro, CURVE-21, outfitted with a video camera will start the documentation of the vessel and the debris field and attempt to locate and recover the voyage data recorder.
Those operations are expected to take up to 15 days to complete in ideal conditions but could take longer depending on weather and conditions encountered during the documentation process.
The 1970-built El Faro, a roll on, roll off cargo ship owned by Sea Star Line and operated by TOTE Services, was en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Florida, when it experienced engine trouble and was disabled some 36 nautical miles northeast of Acklins and Crooked Islands, Bahamas.
Prior to issuing a distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard, the El Faro master had called TOTE’s designated person ashore and reported that the ship was experiencing some flooding. He said the crew had controlled the ingress of water but the ship was listing 15 degrees and had lost propulsion.
The Coast Guard and TOTE were unable to reestablish communication with the ship after that. Twenty-eight U.S. crew members and five Polish workers were on board.
The Coast Guard located one deceased person in a survival suit in the water. 32 remaining crew members, including the ship’s captain, are missing and presumed dead.