Search crews have retrieved the "black box" from the wreckage of the freighter El Faro that sank in 15,000-feet of water near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin last year, officials said Tuesday.
Using a remotely operated vehicle in the pitch black deep sea, crews brought the El Faro's voyage data recorder to the surface Monday night, the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman said.
The 790-foot El Faro sank Oct. 1 after losing propulsion and getting caught in the hurricane while traveling between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. All 33 crew members died.
"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 Christophe Hart said in a news release.
Search crews found the recorder in April attached to a piece of the ship, but couldn't remove it.
Members of the NTSB, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and others returned to the scene Monday after leaving port in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and piloted the remotely operated vehicle down to the ship's resting place to remove the recorder.
The NTSB said in the release that it will begin processing the audio and other data when crews return from sea around Aug. 12. The device is designed to hold 12 hours of recordings from the bridge, as well as navigational data, but NTSB said it's possible there could be more than that. No further voyages to the wreckage site are planned.
The recovery comes after two rounds of investigative hearings by a Coast Guard marine board earlier this year.
The hearings explored the safety record of the ship's owner, Tote Services Inc., and the decisions made by Capt. Michael Davidson to sail the aging freighter near a strong storm.
The El Faro was 40 years old and had open lifeboats, unlike many modern ships that carry closed lifeboats.
Testimony revealed that Davidson knew about Hurricane Joaquin, yet he planned to sail close to it instead of taking a slower, safer path that had been used during past storms. Tote officials said during testimony that the firm's captains are responsible for route planning and are not under time pressure to take risks.
Lawrence Brennan, a professor of maritime law at Fordham University in New York and former admiralty litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, said if the NTSB can retrieve the data from the recorder, it will provide "voices from the grave." This information could greatly enhance investigators' understanding of who, ultimately, was at fault for the deaths of 33 people and lead to new safety requirements, he said.
"The whole purpose of this, in addition to the legal ramifications to come, is to enhance the safety of life at sea," Brennan said. "Tragedies like this have to be avoided."
On Tuesday, the company applauded the NTSB's recovery of the data recorder.
"We hope that the information contained will help with the goal to learn everything possible about the loss of our crew and vessel," Tote said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to the NTSB report and welcome safety related recommendations that benefit our seafarers."
NTSB's Hart said the data recorder will help give more information about what happened on the ship's bridge, including any conversations between Davidson, crew and Tote officials, but it's just one part of the agency's ongoing 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," he said.