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Timeline to tragedy: doomed El Faro's final hours

60 Minutes first reported on El Faro last year. Now crucial clues have been recovered. "Maybe I'm just being a chicken little," one seaman says in the ship's transcript

For nearly a year, it was another mystery in the Bermuda Triangle. An American cargo ship called El Faro had sunk, carried to a grave deeper than the Titanic’s. All 33 souls aboard, gone. And the National Transportation Board wanted to know why — what happened on board El Faro as she sailed seemingly directly into a hurricane?

Today, they have a wealth of new information.

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley reports that, nearly a year after the October 2015 shipwreck, investigators were finally able to recover the voyage data recorder, or VDR. The VDR, only about a foot by eight inches in size, was sitting on the ocean floor almost three miles below the surface, where the pressure is nearly 7,000 pounds per square inch. No commercial recorder had ever been recovered so deep.

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The VDR captured sound from six microphones on the ship’s bridge, and while the NTSB doesn’t release the audio to the public by law, investigators produced a 500-page printed transcript. It’s the longest transcript the Safety Board has ever produced.

The pages provide a devastating glimpse into the ship’s final hours. Some of those on board questioned the captain’s decision to navigate closer to Hurricane Joaquin, a category 3 hurricane at the time El Faro sailed within miles of its eye.

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In August 2016, after recovering El Faro’s voyage data recorder, the remotely operated vehicle called CURV left a plaque commissioned by the families of the crew to honor them. The plaque was placed on top of what was left of the ‘house’, where the top two decks were sheared off.

60 Minutes told the first part of El Faro’s story last January (in the video player above). The NTSB had found the ship upright on the ocean floor, all 791 feet of her revealing the fatal beating she took from Hurricane Joaquin. Near the hull, the ship’s equipment and cargo liter the seabed — a microwave oven here, a printer there.

But as Pelley reported at the time, the NTSB team found something shocking — the top two decks of the ship had been sheared off, including the bridge deck and with it, the VDR.

Naturally, the families of the deceased had questions.

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“Why was a ship that had been grandfathered in to not have the enclosed lifeboats being allowed to sail with just the open hull, like whaling lifeboats, and expecting people to survive in that?” asks Glen Jackson. He lost his brother, Jack.

Tinisha Thomas’ husband, Shawn, was also aboard. “I asked the company a question,” she tells Pelley. “Why did they allow the ship to continue to go into the storm?”

The transcript of El Faro’s final hours sheds light on Thomas’ inquiry. The following is a partial timeline of El Faro’s voyage.

El Faro Accident Timeline by News Team on Scribd

A copy of the full transcript can be found here.