Coast Guard honors crew for extinguishing pushboat galley fire in Houston Ship Channel

A Houston towboat crew was recognized by the Coast Guard for meritorious service after they extinguished a galley fire on another vessel.

The grease fire broke out on the push boat Sara K on May 24 in the upper Houston Ship Channel. After overhearing the Sara K’s radio distress call, the crew of the nearby towing vessel San Rafael responded to assist.

As flames spread to their wheelhouse, Sara K’s crew abandoned ship. Upon arrival, the San Rafael crew recognized that the blaze had the potential to spread to a nearby fuel barge and trigger explosions that could have seriously disrupted vessel traffic in the busy channel. They decided to fight the fire, and they had it out in less than an hour.

The Coast Guard presented the four-man San Rafael crew with an award for public service, noting their “unusual courage and outstanding contributions to navigational safety.†San Rafael is owned and operated by Buffalo Marine Services Inc. of Houston.

In interviews with Professional Mariner, San Rafael crewmen described their response to Sara K’s mayday call.

“Since we were the closest vessel, we responded at flank speed. We were near Greens Bayou and the fire was at the Green Earth Processing terminal,†said tankerman Joe Kesinger.

“It took us about 15 minutes to get to the burning vessel, since we had to be wary of other traffic in the ship channel,†said crewman Chuck McClure.

“As we approached the burning vessel, Capt. Mike Ellis maneuvered the San Rafael so we could get water on the tow from both our port and starboard hoses,†McClure added.

Luckily San Rafael did not have a barge attached, as would normally be the case in bunkering operations.

“However, without a bunkering barge attached, the boat is in a light-ship condition, so the captain has to be careful of running too fast and getting the boat in a torpedo condition where the bow may take on water and put the vessel at risk. It is a fine line between maximizing speed and not flooding the vessel,†said Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine’s general counsel.

Left to burn, the fire could have spread to an adjacent double-ended tank barge with 21,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel. “Giving no thought to danger,†Ellis skillfully maneuvered San Rafael between the burning vessel and the biodiesel barge, which were about 50 feet apart, the Coast Guard said in the commendation.

“This is where we were going to make our stand and not let that fire get to the fuel barges,†Kesinger said.

“We laid water on the vessel for five to seven minutes before we determined boarding the burning vessel was the only way to get the fire under control,†McClure said.

The fire was coming from the galley, so that meant it was a stubborn grease fire. Kesinger and McClure boarded the burning ship and made their way to the galley from opposite sides, knocking the fire down.

While the crew was on board the burning vessel, Ellis was in constant communication with them to make sure they were not imperiled. At the same time, the captain directed nearby tow traffic to proceed with extreme caution.

Once the fire was under control, tankerman Cal Johnson and Kesinger literally kicked down the door to the engine room to enter the space while fighting smoke inhalation.

“The Sara K’s crew had left the vessel in such a hurry they did not turn the generator off, so we did, wanting to remove one more source of re-ignition of the fire,†Kesinger said.

They continued to pour water on the vessel to douse any hot spots while being careful not to flood Sara K with water.

Within 45 minutes from responding to the request for help, Ellis could report that the fire was out and local community firefighting personnel had arrived at the scene.

The quick actions of the crew of San Rafael resulted in the damaged boat quickly returning to service. “We had the boat back on line in three weeks,†said Earl Thrift Jr., president of the Cheryl K. Inc., which owns Sara K.

Sara K is 60 feet long with a 20-foot beam and 1,000 hp.

By Professional Mariner Staff