A little more than 10 months after the cargo ship El Faro sank in the Caribbean Sea during Hurricane Joaquin, the vessel’s voyage data recorder has been recovered.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday that the device was retrieved in roughly 15,000 feet of water off the Bahamas, where it sank last October. All 33 people on board were killed in one of the worst maritime tragedies in recent history.

Five crew members with Maine ties, including the captain, Michael Davidson, 53, of Windham, were among the dead.

Investigators hope the ship’s recorder, similar to an airplane’s “black box,” can provide key details about what was happening on the ship before it sank.

“The recovery of the recorder has the potential to give our investigators greater insight into the incredible challenges that the El Faro crew faced,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said in a written statement. “But it’s just one component of a very complex investigation. There is still a great deal of work to be done in order to understand how the many factors converged that led to the sinking and the tragic loss of 33 lives.”

In addition to Davidson, the other crew members with Maine ties who were aboard the ship when it sank were Dylan Meklin, 23, and Danielle Randolph, 34, of Rockland; Michael Holland, 25, of Wilton; and Mitchell Kuflik, 26, of Brooklyn, New York. All were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Most of the family members have repeatedly declined to comment on the tragedy. Holland’s mother, Deb Roberts, has been the exception.

“For me, I came to accept months ago that it was an accident. It’s not something I need for the healing process,” Roberts said Tuesday evening of the data recorder’s recovery. “But I realize that the information on the voyage data recorder could help other victims’ family members move on.”

SOME FAMILY MEMBERS HESITANT

Roberts said her son was most likely working in the ship’s engine room during the storm and was not on the bridge – where the data recorder was located and recorded navigational data and communications between crew members on the bridge. The engine room, however, may have been in communication with the bridge at the time.

“As much as I’d like to hear my son’s voice again, I’m not sure I would want to hear his voice in that type of situation,” Roberts said.

Roberts said she spoke Tuesday with Randolph’s mother, Laurie Bobillot, about the NTSB’s recovery of the data recorder. Randolph, 34, of Rockland, was a second mate and most likely was stationed on the El Faro’s bridge, Roberts said.

“She is nervous, but is looking forward to what they find,” Roberts said.

She said the U.S. Coast Guard was only able to locate one crew member in a survival suit after the El Faro sank, although the body was never recovered.

“I think a big wave hit and overturned the ship,” Roberts said. “I think it happened so fast that they didn’t know what hit them. But I realize the voyage data recorder could write a different ending for the story than I have in my head. I just hope they didn’t suffer.”

Two separate hearings have been held into the El Faro tragedy, and NTSB and Coast Guard officials are expected to call for a third hearing to review the contents of the data recorder. Investigators may be able to access the last 12 hours of navigational data and bridge communications before the ship’s sinking, which could give them a sense of what Davidson and the crew were facing and whether any additional problems or challenges emerged during their final voyage that have not been reported.

LENGTHY PROCESS TO RECOVER DATA

So far, the investigative hearings have focused on the ship’s condition, weather reports and Davidson’s experience as a captain.

The device had been located on the ocean floor during a mission back in April, but federal investigators determined that they needed another trip to retrieve it.

According to a news release from the NTSB, searchers used specialized tools to delicately remove the recorder from the bridge mast to which it was attached. The recorder will be examined at sea to assess its condition and then will be taken to an NTSB laboratory later this week.

NTSB officials said reviewing the data will be time-consuming, and no timeline was given for releasing additional information.

Roberts said she has been told that the process of recovering the information stored on the data recorder could take several weeks.

“It is going to be a long, tenuous process. They have to be very careful because the device has been underwater for so long,” she said.

Roberts said the information contained on the data recorder “is not going to bring my son home.”

But she hopes that if the data is still intact, it will be used to make the maritime transportation industry safer.

INVESTIGATING FACTORS IN SINKING

The El Faro was a 790-foot cargo ship, owned by TOTE Maritime, that made regular trips between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It left Jacksonville late last September ahead of Hurricane Joaquin, and Davidson planned to sail below the storm’s path, but the ship lost propulsion and wound up in the middle of the Category 4 hurricane.

The 40-year-old ship was to be added to a Coast Guard list of vessels identified as having the most “potential for risk,” a designation that would have triggered more safety inspections. But it was deemed seaworthy before its final voyage.

Another revelation from a hearing in May was that Davidson may have been relying on outdated information about Joaquin and its path.

TOTE Maritime has faced scrutiny about whether the ship was viable and whether Davidson faced pressure to complete his cargo voyages no matter what. One investigator called the tragedy “a colossal failure in management” during the May hearing.

A final investigative report has yet to be issued.

The families of Meklin, Randolph, Holland and Davidson have settled wrongful-death lawsuits and have been paid $500,000 each for “pre-death pain and suffering,” as well as unspecified amounts to cover the “full economic loss” caused by the death of their loved one.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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