Now that wreckage found on the seafloor east of the Bahamas has been confirmed as that of the El Faro, searchers are turning their attention to finding the bodies of the ship’s crew and locating the “black box” that may reveal why the vessel sank.
Two members of the crew, none of whom have been found alive, are alumni of Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. They are Keith Griffin, who graduated in 2005, and Jeffrey A. Mathias, who graduated in 1996.
David G. Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is an expert in deepwater mapping and in the kind of work now going on with the El Faro.
Dr. Gallo co-led the search for Air France Flight 467, which went down off the coast of Brazil in 2011, and participated in the last expedition to the Titanic wreck site. He is familiar with shipwrecks and the technology used to find them.
On Wednesday, he spoke about how the salvage operation will proceed.
The El Faro disappeared east of the Bahamas on October 1 during Hurricane Joaquin.
Sophisticated sonar from the USNS Apache has confirmed wreckage detected last Sunday to be the El Faro.
The wreckage was found at a depth of about 15,000 feet in the vicinity of the vessel’s last known position.
Given that two MMA graduates were members of the crew, Dr. Gallo said that the sinking hit close to home, which made it that much worse.
“Ten ships the size of the El Faro sink every year due to such things as storms and rogue waves,” Dr. Gallo said. “We’ve been asked to find these ships. That’s not our mission at WHOI, but it is our technology and as humanitarians we will always try to help.
“Historically, when ships sank in deep water, we would commit them to eternity,” he said. “Now, with technology, we have passed into eternity as we have the ability to recover things from eternity. Recovery is sacred work and it’s treated with a lot of respect.”
Searchers used a deep-ocean remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to confirm the vessel’s identity.
The vehicle documented both the port and starboard sides of the El Faro and showed it oriented in an upright position with the stern buried in about 30 feet of sediment.
The navigation bridge and the deck below appeared to have separated from the vessel and have not been located. The voyage data recorder, commonly known as the “black box,” also has not been found.
Dr. Gallo said he is familiar with Phoenix International of Largo, Maryland, the salvage company working on El Faro recovery project.
“Phoenix International is operating the effort under the guidance of the Navy,” he said. “They contract with the Navy to do this work. They find lost things in the ocean, study them, and recover them. They are the best in the world.”
“[WHOI] partnered with them on Titanic and Air France,” he said. “I spoke to Phoenix reps and they are extremely confident their ongoing operation will be able to recover the voyage data recorder and determine how El Faro sank.”
El Faro was found sitting three miles below the surface of the water.
“That makes it anything but routine,” Dr. Gallo said. “It’s a mile deeper than Titanic. They’ll need the right team and the right game plan,”
Dr. Gallo described the mission as similar to a symphony orchestra, which must have the best instruments and the best musicians all working together.
“It’s the people whose names don’t even make the paper who make it successful,” he said.
Once the ship is found, there are three steps to the recovery process.
The first is finding any remains, the second is finding the black box, and the third and final step is undertaking a complete study of the ship to understand what happened.
But initially searchers had to find the ship.
They started by listening for the pinger.
“They were after the VDR, the black box, which is equipped with a pinger,” Dr. Gallo said. “They listened for three days and couldn’t hear it.”
In practice, he said, it is hard to hear the pinging sound. Any variety of reasons could render the ping unintelligible, and the ocean is known to play with sound.
Then they searched with sonar.
“They put a vehicle over the side connected with a cable which maps the bottom with sound,” he said. “It moves back and forth. We call it ‘mowing the lawn.’ You get a fuzzy image of the seafloor, and that’s how they found the ship. They said it was intact on the seafloor.”
Having found the ship, they launched a robot to inspect it.
A CURV-21 remotely operated vehicle, hooked to the surface and equipped with cameras to inspect the ship from bow to stern, was launched to find out what made the vessel sink.
But the first mission, he said, “is to recover any remains on board. You never know. There could be remains on board. It depends on the ocean and the wreck site.”
They will continue to search for the VDR, the black box. The CURV-21 will help find the box, ascertain its condition and see if it is accessible. Bringing it to the surface is mostly done with the CURV, which has arms that cut holes and saw through doorways to make a pathway. There are even smaller robots, called xbots, which launch from the CURV to go through the ship for a view deep inside.
Dr. Gallo said he is surprised the ship is intact.
“Of all the shipwrecks we’ve looked at, the ocean crushed them as they were full of air pockets,” he said.
Dr. Gallo mentioned one exception.
“The bow of the Titanic was full of water, so it wasn’t crushed, but her stern was fully crushed as it was full of air pockets,” he said. “This tells me the El Faro was probably full of water when it sank and that it sank quickly.
“Everything points to a fast sinking,” he said. “The electronic homing device was not launched. It should have launched. Maybe the ship sank too fast, maybe conditions were just too fast.”
He also wondered if the hatches were open, which the xbot cameras will hopefully be able to relate.
The final stage of the salvage mission involves closure.
“The hope is to bring closure to the families and to learn what happened for the sake of the shipbuilders to prevent it happening again,” Dr. Gallo said.
He said the information gleaned also can be valuable for litigation purposes.
The El Faro, a cargo ship, lost contact with the US Coast Guard on October 1 after the 735-foot commercial vessel was beset by Hurricane Joaquin near Crooked Island in the Bahamas. The vessel had lost propulsion, leaving the ship at the mercy of the Category 4 hurricane packing 140-mile-per-hour winds.
The Coast Guard embarked upon a weeklong search for the missing crew, utilizing five Coast Guard planes, three Coast Guard cutters and three commercial cutters. The search eventually would encompass 183,000 square nautical miles off the Bahamian coast.
Air crews had found the dead body of a sailor in a survival suit in the search area, along with a heavily damaged lifeboat with markings consistent with those aboard the El Faro, along with a partially submerged life raft.
On October 5, the Coast Guard announced the El Faro had sunk.
Two of the missing members of the crew, Keith Griffin and Jeffrey A. Mathias, are alumni of Massachusetts Maritime. Keith Griffin’s wife is carrying twins and Jeffrey Mathias is the father of three children, ages 7 and younger.