Undetermined electrical ignition blamed for spud barge fire

Kokosing V ablaze in the James River. The $1.4 million crane aboard the barge was a total loss.

The 150-foot steel spud barge Kokosing V, owned and operated by Kokosing Industrial, was built in 2020 and outfitted with a Liebherr 895 crawler crane equipped with a clam shell bucket and drag line for dredging.

On September 23, 2022, the barge – accompanied by the Justin, a 73.8-foot-long tug operated by Skiff’s Creek Towing – arrived at its work location to dredge the James River near the Northrup Grumman shipyard in Newport News, Va. 

About 10:30 pm on October 4, 2022, the spud barge was working when the on-board dredging crane caught fire. 

The crew attempted to put out the fire with portable extinguishers and water, but they were unsuccessful, and were forced back by the flames and withdrew to Justin, which was tied alongside.

Crews from responding fireboats extinguished the fire later that evening. There were no injuries or fuel spills reported. The crane, valued at $1.4 million, was a total loss and the Kokosing V ’s wooden deck mat was also destroyed and subsequently replaced.

The day after the fire, investigators from the Newport News Fire Marshal’s office inspected the barge and crawler crane. On the crane, they found a ”clean engine bay with no signs of a fire happening on top of the [crane] engine.” 

In the battery compartment, located behind the driver compartment, they found the battery bank destroyed and electrical cables with “a lot of beading and fusing,” indicating arc damage on the crane’s electrical cables. The foreman on board the Kokosing V  told the investigators that he had observed a burning “liquid fire” dripping from underneath the crane. 

Insurance investigators found “significant smoke and heat damage to the crane’s underside and rear sections” with fire and burn patterns that were directional toward the right side of the crane near the fuel, hydraulic lines, and exhaust system.”

Suffolk County fire investigators concluded that the fire was “likely accidental due to an electrical failure in the crane’s battery bank.”

Potential ignition sources within the battery compartment, they said, “include loose electrical connections and chaffed or damaged wiring. The extensive damage to the compartment precluded examination of components, and therefore the ignition source could not be determined.”