Bunker fuel ignites after tanker strikes mooring dolphins in Houston

An oil tanker struck two mooring dolphins while leaving a dock in the Houston Ship Channel, puncturing one of the ship’s fuel tanks and igniting the fuel inside. Flaming diesel spread across much of the channel, threatening other vessels and terminals in Buffalo Bayou until the flames were extinguished.

The incident occurred shortly after midnight on Sept. 6 as the 810-foot Aframax River was leaving the Houston Fuel Oil Dock with 25 crewmembers. Two Houston Pilots also were on board at the time. There were no injuries.

The presiding officer of the Houston Pilots said a mechanical issue caused the allision, although that could not be confirmed. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident. Coast Guard spokesman Dustin Williams declined to comment on a possible cause due to the ongoing probe.

“Capt. (Michael) McGee was conning the vessel and undocking when the ship experienced an engine failure and struck two mooring dolphins,” Capt. Robert M. Shearon, the pilots’ presiding officer, said in a prepared statement. “As a result of the contact, a port fuel tank ruptured, causing a spill of diesel fuel that ignited and burned.”

The Panama-flagged Aframax River was unloaded at the time of the fire, but it had about 90,000 gallons of low-sulfur bunkering fuel on board. It’s not clear how much fuel escaped. Estimates range from 38,000 to 80,000 gallons.

The Port of Houston Authority Fire Department received an emergency call about the fire at 0022 on Sept. 6. The department dispatched Fire Boat 1 and Fire Boat 2, both MetalCraft Firestorm 70s with multiple fire pumps and monitors. Fire crews arrived to find flames rising several stories off the water.

“The M/V Aframax River (was) in the middle of the channel, with fire surrounding the bow of the vessel,” POHA Fire Chief William Buck said in a recent interview. “Some tugs also were trying to extinguish the fire. They were keeping the vessel in place in the center of the channel.”

The fireboats discharged a blanket of foam to extinguish flames spreading on the water toward ships and terminals on both sides of the channel. They also aimed their monitors toward Aframax River’s hull to prevent damage to the ship.

The flames were extinguished within about 15 minutes of the fire crews’ arrival, Buck said. The fire burned for about an hour.

Two G&H Towing tugboats were assisting with the tanker’s departure when the incident occurred. The 5,150-hp tugboat Gasparilla was at the port bow, while the 4,300-hp Jess Newton was at the port quarter, the Coast Guard said. Those tugs and two additional tugs from the company helped with firefighting.

G&H declined to comment due to potential litigation stemming from the accident.

The two Houston Pilots stayed on the bridge throughout the episode. McGee steered the ship toward the middle of the channel after the fire started, Shearon said, to minimize the threat to surrounding property.

“One pilot’s face and hair were singed,” he said. “The other pilot broke out and charged a fire hose and extinguished a fire on the port bridge wing himself.”

Once the fire was out, McGee guided the damaged ship to a nearby dock. The Coast Guard closed about a mile of the channel near the Battleship Texas state historic site until 1530 on Sept. 6 for fuel cleanup.

By daybreak only a light sheen was visible on the water where the fire took place. Environmental contractors removed pockets of fuel from the channel, the Coast Guard said. Much of the fuel is believed to have burned off or evaporated.

Aframax River Marine, which is registered in Athens, Greece, is listed as the ship’s operator. Contact information for the company could not be found.

The ruptured tank is located on the ship’s port quarter. Its port ballast tank and port-side lifeboat and other lifesaving equipment also were damaged during the incident, Williams said. About two weeks after the fire, Aframax River left Houston for a Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard for repairs.

By Professional Mariner Staff