Home » Merchant Marine » U.S. Navy Deploying Search Team to Find Lost Merchant Ship El Faro

U.S. Navy Deploying Search Team to Find Lost Merchant Ship El Faro

Undated photo of merchant ship SS El Faro. Marine Traffic Photo

Undated photo of merchant ship SS El Faro. Marine Traffic Photo

At the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, the Navy is scrambling a ship and an underwater search team to find the missing merchant ship SS El Faro, Navy officials told USNI News on Thursday.

The roll-on/roll-off merchant ship was made its last contact on Oct. 1 and was feared to have sunk when it crossed paths with Hurricane Joaquin.

The U.S. Coast Guard ended its search for the crew on Oct. 7 with all 33 hands onboard the U.S.-flagged ship — including 28 Americans — presumed lost at sea.

“Several ‘survival suits’ were spotted floating in the water, one of which contained the body,” according to a statement at the time from the Coast Guard reported via NPR.
“In addition, an empty, heavily damaged lifeboat was found.”

Now, the Navy is preparing fleet tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172) that is scheduled to depart Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va. next week for to search an area northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas — an area commonly referred to as the “Bermuda Triangle.”

“The initial search area is 100 square miles, and we estimate water depth to be 15,000 feet across the expected search area,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Chris Johnson told USNI News on Thursday.
“We estimate we will remain in the area until mid-November.”

Apache “will be equipped with several pieces of underwater search equipment, including a voyage data recorder locator, side-scan sonar and an underwater [remotely operated vehicle],” Johnson said.

The ROV is likely to be the Navy’s CURV 21 deep ocean salvage ROV that can operate at depths of 20,000 feet.

An undated photo of the Powhatan class fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). US Navy Photo

An undated photo of the Powhatan class fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). US Navy Photo

The loss of El Faro is among the worst U.S. merchant marine disaster recent memory. The last comparable loss of a U.S. flagged merchant ship that close to the East Coast was the sinking of SS Marine Electric in 1983 in which 31 of the 34 member crew were lost 30 miles off the coast of Virginia.

“Not since 1983 has an American flagged merchant ship gone to the bottom in such an ugly way,” merchant captain Allen Baker wrote Monday in The Baltimore Sun.

The following is the complete Oct. 15, 2015 statement from NAVSEA on the search for El Faro.

The National Transportation Safety Board has asked the U.S. Navy to assist in the search for the missing U.S. flagged merchant vessel El Faro. To support this effort, the Navy is deploying a deep-water search and salvage team embarked aboard the fleet ocean tug USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). The ship will be equipped with several pieces of underwater search equipment, including a voyage data recorder locator, side-scan sonar, and an underwater ROV. Once deployed, the Navy will focus its search northeast of Crooked Island in the Bahamas island chain, which is the last known location of the vessel.

The Navy will begin loading equipment aboard Apache in Little Creek, Va., on Thursday, Oct. 15. Load-out will take approximately four to five days, after which point the ship will deploy to the search area. Transit to the search area will take approximately two days.

The initial search area is 100 square miles, and we estimate water depth to be 15,000 feet across the expected search area. We estimate we will remain in the area until mid-November.

El Faro had 33 people on board, including 28 American citizens. The last known communication with the ship was on October 1st.

The U.S. Navy operates some of the world’s most advanced underwater search and salvage systems, so we are uniquely qualified to perform this type of mission. Though our equipment is typically used to search and recover downed military ships and aircraft, the Navy has a long history in assisting other federal agencies in underwater search and salvage operations, including the search and recovery of TWA 800 and the space shuttle Challenger. In 2013, the Navy assisted the government of Australia in its search for missing Malaysian Airliner MH 370.

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Categories: Merchant Marine, News & Analysis, Surface Forces, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy
Sam LaGrone

About Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He was formerly the U.S. Maritime Correspondent for the Washington D.C. bureau of Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Navy International. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.

  • muzzleloader

    At the risk of seeming unfeeling, I fail to see the profit of this venture, short of assuaging the grief of the survivor’s families. The wreck lies 3 miles below the surface, far too deep and expensive to salvage. If found, there will be photos to confirm the ship’s identity, but beyond that I find it hard to justify the use of money and assets this venture will require. While my heart truly goes out to the families of the lost, it must be realized that for thousands of years brave men have gone down to the sea in ships. Like many professions of risk, a sea goer knows the potential of danger, it goes with the trade.

    • KPS13

      Recovering the VDR data and imagery will shed light on the cause of the vessels foundering and help NTSB provide safety recommendations to at least attempt to make the trade safer. Just saying, “you know the potential of danger” isn’t good safety management or good use of an NTSB investigation.

      • Will

        Right, it could have been the hurricane, terrorism, sabotage, mechanical malfunction, or a sea monster. We need to investigate.

        • publius_maximus_III

          Maybe the Navy will find Flight 19 while they’re down there?

    • Will Jones

      Maybe it has to do with the cargo, or, as to why it went down. It’s not to please the lost’s families. Plus, endeavors such as this provide the Navy with opportunity for real world training.

      • KPS13

        I should be more specific, the request for Navy assistance came from NTSB. Their only goal in their investigation is to determine cause and provide safety recommendations to prevent an incident like this from happening again. NTSB conclusive findings are not admissible for private litigation or insurance claims as per 49 USC 1154(b).

        • magic3400

          That’s a misreading of 49 USC 1154(b)

          That section deals with a) DISCOVERY and b) DAMAGES. NTSB findings are admissible in private litigation as long as the plaintiff is not seeking a damage award.

          (b) Reports.— No part of a report of the Board, related to an accident or an investigation of an accident, may be admitted into evidence or used in a civil action for damages resulting from a matter mentioned in the report.

          Civil litigation that seeks a change in rules and/or regulations do allow the NTSB reports to be entered as evidence.

        • publius_maximus_III

          NTSB Safety Recommendation #1: Never sail into a Category 4 hurricane when you can avoid it.

          NTSB Safety Recommendation #2: Refer to Safety Recommendation #1.

    • Horn

      Nothing beats a real-life test of the equipment we paid so much money for. Also, a simulator cannot replace actual experience gained using the equipment. Besides, a fleet tug is a pretty low-cost option.

    • Dion Duhon Sherman

      Wow… I promise you would not feel this way if part of your immediate family, friends or even beloved pet was involved… just shut up…

      • muzzleloader

        My pet? LoL That is funny, DD

  • disqus_zommBwspv9

    Marine Electric 1983. But at least we found 3 people alive out of 34. And weather was good enough that helos were used to get them out of the water. I was sweating have to get launch in the whaleboat in 15 plus foot seas. Sounds like a needle in the haystack search. Guess the Fleet Tug will be out there until the weather stops the search. How many here remember when Fleet Tugs were Armed and manned by Sailors in all departments not USNS personnel

    • You should be glad they’re run by real sailors instead of the Navy — we want to find El Faro, not crash into every tanker in the Caribbean!

  • JRS

    It will be interesting if they find it. I wonder where the black boxes are on them?

    • CD

      The Voyage Data Recorder and one of it’s hard drives is located inside the bridge and records all conversations and other data inputs on the bridge and the bridge wings. The VDR’s second hard drive is encapsulated and is mounted on top of the bridge weather deck specifically for this purpose. The question of whether or not to try and locate this capsule is not an issue. All ship’s have these VDR’s and the Maritime Nations will make the effort to locate the hard drives.

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