(Adds background, legal implications)
By David Adams
MIAMI, Nov 16 (Reuters) - A U.S. salvage team ended its search off the Bahamas for the missing voyage data recorder of the cargo ship El Faro which sank with its mostly American crew in a hurricane last month, officials said on Monday.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said a video survey of the ship’s debris field on the ocean floor had been completed but the vessel’s voyage data recorder was not located.
The El Faro sank in a hurricane off the Bahamas on Oct. 1 while on a weekly cargo run between Florida and Puerto Rico. The voyage data recorder, similar to an airplane’s black box, contains the last 12 hours of engine orders and other communications from the bridge.
It could have provided investigators from the NTSB with vital clues as to what caused the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.
That information is crucial to establishing legal responsibility for the loss of lives of the 28 American crew and 5 Polish workers.
Four lawsuits have been filed by relatives of the crew against the ship owners, Tote, alleging the ship was not seaworthy and should have avoided the hurricane. Tote have said the ship was in good condition, blaming the accident instead on a loss of power the cause of which is unknown.
The NTSB said it still held out hope of solving the mystery of what caused its sinking.
“Over the years we’ve completed many investigations without the aid of recorders and other investigative tools,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart.
No further search missions for El Faro are planned, the NTSB added.
The 790-foot (241-meter) ship disappeared with its 33 crew in the eye of hurricane Joaquin after the captain reported losing propulsion and taking on water.
Using sonar and a remotely operated submersible, CURV-21, the wreckage of the ship was initially detected sitting on the ocean floor at a depth of nearly three miles (5 km), deeper than the Titanic and beyond the reach of divers.
The navigation bridge had separated from the vessel and was located last week. However, the voyage data recorder (VDR) affixed to the bridge was missing along with the ship’s mast.
“After five more days of searching with CURV-21, it was determined that the VDR could not be located,” the NTSB said, and the salvage mission ended on Sunday. (Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Sandra Maler)