A bulk carrier cargo ship laid up for the winter experienced a devastating fire that caused major damage. The damage was so extensive and the danger so great, that the U.S. Coast Guard issued a marine safety alert regarding fire safety for ships in lay-up. While there were no maritime job injuries in this fire, it highlights a possible danger for all maritime workers.
“Lay-up” is a term that refers to periods of time when ships are temporarily out of use. Typically vessels in lay-up are anchored or moored. Sometimes seasonally, and sometimes due to market fluctuations, ship owners will choose to put their vessels in lay-up and wait for more profitable conditions. A ship in lay-up is much less expensive to run and requires few crew members and technicians to keep the vessel in good working order.
In the event of an emergency like a massive fire, a small crew is a double edged sword. On the one side, there are fewer workers who may be injured in a shipboard fire. On the other side, there are also fewer crew members to react to an emergency situation.
No Watchman on Duty
The “bulker” that caught fire while laid up in the Great Lakes was unmanned and vacant when the fire was discovered. Normally, a ship watchman would have been onboard during a lay-up. The watchman assigned to the vessel that day went home for the weekend hours before the fire was reported. No replacement watchman took his place.
The day of the fire, the vessel had a working crew aboard welding in the ballast tanks and conveyor tunnel areas. According to the ship’s log, the last worker left the vessel at 6 p.m. At 8 p.m., a watchman on a nearby ship observed the fire.
Numerous Possible Sources of Ignition
Observations from the watchman on the other vessel indicated that the fire may have originated in the machine shop on the gangway deck. As investigation into the cause of the catastrophic fire began, workers noted many possible sources of ignition in the machinery space such as:
- Propane heaters
- Electric heaters
- Heat lamps
The investigation revealed that the welding work crew used the machine shop and steering gear rooms to warm up during their breaks during the work day. The electric heaters in those rooms were still connected to onshore electricity prior to the fire, though all the other vessel machinery was shut down.
Delayed Call for Help Results in Devastation
Though the nearby watchman spotted the fire at approximately 8 p.m., it was almost 45 minutes before he called 911. He spent the intervening time contacting hot-work contractors and other contract workers before seeking emergency services.
When local fire departments did respond, they were able to cool the vessel’s exterior, as well as the exteriors of other ships docked nearby. Efforts to save the ship were complicated by frozen water hydrants at the dock. In the end, the fire burned for more than 35 hours in the upper engine room spaces and moved into the entire superstructure, on to the self-unloading belt, throughout the port and starboard conveyor tunnels, and onto the cargo boom belt above the main deck.
While emergency crews worked to fight the fire, the electrical power supply from the shore to the vessel failed. Because the ship was in lay-up, a number of valves were open for maintenance and to drain various systems within the machinery space. Because of the power loss during the fire, the bubbling system used to prevent freezing around the machinery space area of the hull failed.
There had been several days of freezing weather in the days leading up to the fire, so various piping systems failed and water flooded into the machinery space. This flooding continued until divers were able to shut off the flow from the sea chest.
The Marine Safety Warning from the Coast Guard
Due to the flooding, major structural damage, and the long burning fire, investigators did not access the vessel for 11 days following the incident. When they were finally able to get aboard, there was no way to identify a specific source of the fire. The prevailing theory is that the fire began in the machine shop area where the welding workers left numerous electric heaters plugged in for weeks prior to the fire.
In light of the devastating fire, the Coast Guard issued a marine safety warning to vessel owners and operators whose vessels are in lay-up status. Particularly, the Coast Guard warns vessel owners with ships connected to shore power to be cautious when work, such as welding, takes place.
The warning cautioned ship owners to:
- Be sure that continuous fire, safety, and security watches are maintained. Furthermore, that scheduled watchmen receive specific instructions regarding their duties in the event of a fire or other emergency situation.
- Make use of persons with vessel engineering experience and familiarity with engine room systems during lay-up preparations. These individuals can help prevent unintended circumstances, such as the flooding of the machinery space on this ship.
Connection to onshore power and irresponsible engineering certainly seems likely culprits for the overall catastrophic damage on this vessel. However, even on the best-run ship, a fire is much more deadly and complex than a fire ashore.
Think of it like this: a large commercial bulker is like a large building with most of its floors underground. The volume of ship space with limited entry points below deck is a challenging aspect for firefighters.
Some vessels may have an internal depth of hull as tall as a 7-story building. Essentially, it is a floating warehouse with access to a series of upper decks. This makes most ships the firefighting equivalent of responding to a 9-story building with a 7-story basement.
Further complicating matters, most commercial vessels encapsulate all the elements of a small city. Many ships contain:
- Heavy industrial equipment,
- High bay warehousing
- A hotel or sleeping facilities
- Leisure facilities
- Bulk oil storage
The Coast Guard’s marine safety warning was a needful one because fire safety on ships can be the difference between life and death.
Have Questions about Marine Safety?
If you are suffering the effects of a maritime fire, contact Maritime Injury Guide. As a maritime worker, you have certain legal rights and protections. You may be entitled to benefits or compensation for your injuries and losses.