Coast Guard: Unmonitored fuel transfer led to deaths on munitions ship

A U.S. Coast Guard report has concluded that the failure to monitor the transfer of fuel was a factor in an engine room fire that cost the lives of two crewmembers on an ammunition ship.

The fire occurred aboard SSG Edward A. Carter Jr. in July 2001 while the ship was docked in Southport, N.C. The two men who died became trapped inside the confined engine room area as an oil fire raged out of control.

The ship’s second assistant engineer failed to monitor the transfer of bunker fuel, according to a Coast Guard report released by headquarters in September. The report also faulted the master for his role in a failed attempt to extinguish the blaze.

At the time of the accident, numerous vent pipes were disconnected from the fuel system’s vent-collection chamber, and an overfill alarm had been disabled by a pencil jammed in the alarm-acknowledge toggle switch. Oil overfilled the settling tank and leaked — undetected by the disabled overfill alarms — into the engine space through the joints in the vent pipes that had been disconnected.

In the moments following the initial flareup, the vessel’s third assistant engineer reportedly became disoriented in the intense smoke and heat, collapsed just a few feet from an escape door and died of smoke inhalation. The other victim was one of the ship’s wipers, who, while attempting to flee the engine room, jumped into the Cape Fear River and drowned.

The report on the incident determined that the fire was likely the result of a leak of heavy fuel oil (HFO) onto a hot exhaust stack. The ship was docked at the Military Ocean Terminal, Sunny Point (MOTSU). Despite some $15 million in damage to the ship’s engine, systems and structural areas, the fire did not spread to the cargo area, which was laden with approximately 5 million pounds of ammunition.

The exact nature of the fire was as difficult to determine for Coast Guard investigators as it was confusing for the ship’s crew trying to respond effectively in the moments following the alarm.

The investigation focused on the transfer of HFO between bunker tanks, an action that was reportedly the sole responsibility of the second assistant engineer, according to crew testimony. The second denied ever making the fuel transfer. Yet investigators found that the fuel-transfer valves had been left in the open position and that the fire was the result of overfilled tanks.

Investigators alleged that the second assistant engineer repeatedly lied about his actions. (The report recommended to an administrative law judge that his license be suspended or revoked.)

Transfer of the fuel resulted in HFO overflowing the tanks, which then led to a large volume of oil leaking onto a machinery space. While the exact point of ignition was not determined, the report suggested it was likely the result of HFO coming into contact with a hot exhaust stack on one of the auxiliary generators. Burning fuel oil then dripped in baseball-size globs down through the engine space, spreading the blaze and filling the engine room with thick, black smoke.

While most of the engineers and assistants were able to escape, the third assistant engineer was overwhelmed. By climbing a ladder to a door through the hull, the wiper managed to escape, apparently unharmed. But after dropping into the river, he was unable to stay afloat.

The ship’s second assistant engineer was on deck at the time and responded to his cries for help, twice throwing flotation ring buoys to the man. The wiper appeared unable to swim to the buoys, his splashes driving the buoys farther away, despite the fact that records showed he had passed a basic safety course that included swimming skills.

A search by the crew of a Coast Guard 41-foot utility boat, which responded to the scene approximately 20 minutes later, failed to find him. His body was recovered three days later, several miles downstream.

A series of maintenance problems associated with the ship’s fuel system contributed to the incident. Blocked pipes and faulty alarms had been subject to ongoing maintenance on the part of the ship’s engineers. An extended yard period, following sale of the vessel from Maersk Sealand to Maersk Line Ltd., for use by the U.S. Military Sealift Command, failed to correct the blocked piping and overfill-alarm problems.

Several of the ship’s engineers were scattered throughout the multilevel space on the afternoon of July 14, attending to various maintenance tasks when, at 1602, an automatic fire alarm was heard. Despite the shipwide alarm, the crew failed to muster in a single area, according to the Coast Guard report, which resulted in a delayed response to search for the missing crewmen and confused fire-response operations.

The report also cited the ship’s master for failing to engage the ship’s low-pressure CO2 extinguishing system until 35 minutes after the alarm. Even when it was deployed, the system was ineffective because doors in the upper reaches of the engine space had been left open, as had several vents in the lower sections of the engine room, effectively producing a chimney effect that fanned the blaze and prevented the CO2 system from functioning. (The chimney effect likely prevented the blaze from spreading to the cargo, however, as it forced the fire to burn in a vertical manner, venting at the top.)

The Coast Guard issued a number of recommendations as a result of this incident: Those recommendations included:

• That action be taken by a law judge against the licenses of numerous crewmembers, including the master, chief engineer, chief mate and second assistant engineer for various actions that led up to and contributed to the fire and response.

• That the American Bureau of Shipping, the ship’s classification society, review guidance and training programs for operation of low-pressure, fixed firefighting systems.

• That the industry adopt rules to ensure that sideport doors forming part of the hull be made to close from a position outside the space in times of emergency and that such doors not be used for ventilation of the engine space. The Coast Guard suggested that these rules governing doors be made part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

• That the Coast Guard (and SOLAS regulators) push for legislation requiring engine room fire drills. Those drills should be held on a monthly basis and should include the simulated use of fixed firefighting equipment. Fixed-system CO2 equipment should be made to display whether the main stop valve is open or closed. (The crew of SSG Edward A. Carter Jr. believed the system had been activated when it had not — due to a power failure.)

• That the MOTSU terminal purchase a thermal imaging camera for use in fighting dockside fires.

To view the full report, go to:

By Professional Mariner Staff