NTSB: Hot work near combustible material started Natchez fire

Natchez sustained damage to its engine space during the fire in May 2022.
Natchez sustained damage to its engine space during the fire in May 2022.
Natchez sustained damage to its engine space during the fire in May 2022.

The fire that damaged the steamboat Natchez while it was out of service in New Orleans likely started after sparks from hot work landed on cardboard boxes only a few feet away, federal investigators determined.

Natchez sustained damage to its engine space during the fire in May 2022. A deck hand working a security detail on the vessel discovered the fire at 1945 on May 3, 2022. The 47-year-old paddle-wheeled tour boat was out of service undergoing renovations at a site along the Industrial Canal near Lake Pontchartrain.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators determined contractors working on the 236-foot vessel and vessel personnel failed to “either remove or adequately protect combustible material near hot work.”

“According to OSHA regulations,” the NTSB report said, “all combustible material closer than 35 feet to the hot work in either the horizontal or vertical direction that cannot be removed had to be protected with flameproofed covers or otherwise shielded with metal or asbestos guards or c=urtains. 

“This was not performed over two known areas of combustibles,” the report continued.

Natchez is an iconic part of the New Orleans French Quarter. The 1,200-passenger vessel runs multiple daily jazz cruises along the Mississippi River. Its owners, the New Orleans Steamboat Co., took Natchez out of service in January 2021 for an extensive interior and mechanical renovation. 

The overhaul work included installation of two new Caterpillar generators and related piping, and the replacement of an adjacent electrical panel. Contractors using an acetylene torch completed removal of the panel framing at about 1545. The final technician left the vessel at about 1830, about 45 minutes after the deck hand completed his most recent rounds through the engine compartment. 

“The technician told investigators that although he noted the smell associated with hot work following the completion of the panel frame removal, he did not smell or see any other indication of smoke before leaving the generator space,” the report said. 

The deck hand noticed smoke coming from the main level engine space at about 75 minutes after the final technician departed. Subsequent investigation showed flames emerged from the starboard-side engine room doors. The deck hand called 911 and notified company personnel about the fire. 

New Orleans city firefighters extinguished the flames at about 2140, the report said. The vessel sustained roughly $1.5 million in damage and, as of March 2023, has not returned to service. 

Investigators from multiple federal agencies investigated the fire, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the NTSB and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Several private fire inspectors representing the contractors and vessel owners also participated in the investigation. 

Photos provided to investigators showed numerous boxes were stored on a shelf only about two feet from the hot work. 

“ATF fire investigators noted a distinctive V-shaped fire pattern on the forward bulkhead of the generator space, which indicated that this was most likely where the fire started,” the NTSB report said. 

“Although the electrical panel removal work had stopped about 1545,” the report continued, “a smoldering hot spot had most likely formed within the boxes from the sparks generated from the acetylene torch cutting the metal electrical panel. Between 1545 and when the fire was discovered at 1945, the hot spot expanded and eventually ignited.”

NTSB officials said they have investigated numerous similar fires that were later traced to smoldering near hot work. Such fires are characterized by a slow, steady combustion process with little heat and no smoke or flame, the agency said. That can make them hard to detect, even with a dedicated fire watch.

“It is critical to evaluate work areas for fire hazards and ensure that combustibles are relocated or protected with flameproofed covers/curtains or otherwise shielded with sheet metal,” the NTSB said. “In addition, crewmembers involved in hot work should be trained to identify hazards such as combustibles and to take action to remove or protect them from hot work.”