Engine fire disables Florida Marine tow in Ohio River

Capt. Kirby Dupuis transits down the Ohio River near Stout, Ohio, in 2019.
Capt. Kirby Dupuis transits down the Ohio River near Stout, Ohio, in 2019.
Capt. Kirby Dupuis transits down the Ohio River near Stout, Ohio, in 2019.

A towboat caught fire in the Ohio River near Cincinnati and went adrift with its 15-barge tow before a good Samaritan vessel pushed it against the bank. 

The 4,000-hp Capt. Kirby Dupuis, operated by Florida Marine Transporters (FMT), was upbound when the fire started Nov. 9 at about 0730. The tow was near mile marker 500 at the time. 

The six crewmembers working aboard the towboat were not hurt, and the U.S. Coast Guard reported no pollution. 

FMT believes a mechanical failure in the port engine caused the starboard engine to catch fire, according to Timmy Callais, the company’s operations manager for dry cargo. However, the exact cause of the incident has not been determined. 

“All we know is that the port engine blew a flame toward the starboard engine, which caught it on fire,” he said. 

The Coast Guard also has opened an investigation. A spokesman for the service declined to comment on a possible cause. 

The 120-foot Capt. Kirby Dupuis was pushing upriver with the 15 dry cargo barges when the fire started. The tow was near Belleview, Ky., some 35 river miles downriver from Cincinnati. 

There were no signs of trouble during engine room rounds conducted about 30 minutes before the fire started. Crew learned of the blaze from alarms blaring in the wheelhouse. 

The wheelhouse crew shut down the Caterpillar 3512C engines and then activated the manual fuel shutoffs located outside the engine room. They next activated the Ansul Sapphire Novec 1230 fixed fire suppression system to snuff out the flames.

Parts of the starboard engine remained smoldering for some time afterward. Reports that the fire reflashed sometime after going out were inaccurate, according to FMT. 

The Marathon Petroleum towboats Texas City and Kentucky helped maneuver the drifting tow into the bank, and the C&B Marine towboat Newport held it in position, Callais said. 

Firefighters from the Cincinnati Fire Department’s marine unit responded later that morning. Fire crews broke exterior windows on the starboard side and sprayed hoses inside at the smoldering starboard engine. 

Capt. Kirby Dupuis crews activated portable pumps to cool the sides of the towboat during the fire response. They eventually left the tow for another FMT vessel. 

Damage was mostly confined to Capt. Kirby Dupuis’ engine compartment. “We know the engine room has to be gutted,” Callais said. “A little of the paint blistered in the starboard stack, but I don’t think there was any blistering anywhere else.”

FMT officials are still reviewing the incident and working to determine what went wrong. All indications suggest the failure was mechanical in nature.  

The company praised Capt. Kirby Dupuis’ crewmembers for responding admirably to the fire and following established procdures to put it out. 

“I commend the crew. They did a great job,” Callais said. “They showed that doing your drills pays off.”