By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy salvage team prepared on Sunday to launch a remotely operated submersible to confirm that wreckage discovered near the Bahamas was that of the cargo ship El Faro, lost in a hurricane last month along with its 33 crew members.
The team's mission is to document the shipwreck and any debris field, and to retrieve the sunken vessel's voyage data recorder - similar to an airplane's black box - as part of an investigation into its loss, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
If human remains are encountered during the submersible operation the Navy will attempt to recover them, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said.
It was the worst maritime accident involving a U.S.-flag vessel since 1983.
The cargo ship's owner, Tote Inc., has been hit with four lawsuits filed by relatives of the crew, alleging the ship was not seaworthy and should have changed course to avoid Hurricane Joaquin.
Tote filed for protection in a federal court in Florida on Friday, citing U.S. maritime law and saying the ship was "seaworthy and properly manned" and that the company bears no responsibility for its loss.
As El Faro left port in Jacksonville, Florida, en route to Puerto Rico, the captain set the ship on what appeared to be a collision course with the powerful storm, a decision that has baffled shipping experts.
The El Faro disappeared on Oct. 1 after the captain reported losing propulsion and taking on water. The crew included 28 Americans and five Poles.
It was unclear on Sunday what plans were in place to recover remains of the crew. The wreck site is at a depth of nearly 3 miles beneath the surface, far beyond the reach of divers, Knudson said.
A week-long search and rescue mission launched by the U.S. Coast Guard after the ship went missing found only one body.
Some relatives of the crew complained that not enough was being done to find their loved ones after the Coast Guard called off its search.
"We still don't have any closure. I feel it's not really any better until they find some bodies," Schmiora Hill, 33, of Jacksonville, said on Sunday. Hill is a cousin of Roosevelt Clark, a veteran seaman who was aboard the El Faro.
The NTSB said in a statement on Saturday that wreckage consistent with the missing 790-foot (241 meters) cargo ship was found using sonar equipment, lying upright and intact on the sea floor.
The submersible, known as CURV-21, is equipped with a video camera and could be launched as early as Sunday, the NTSB said.
The voyage data recorder attached to the aft of the ship's bridge is designed to be removable by a remotely controlled device, according to shipping experts. It preserves the last 12 hours of engine orders and communications from the bridge and could provide vital clues as to why the ship sank.
Tote has said the loss of propulsion likely resulted in the ship sinking as it was unable to steer clear of high seas whipped up by Joaquin.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Andrew Hay)