Containership crew says enclosed-space welding caused blast at sea

An explosion damaged the hull of a 900-foot containership near Puerto Rico, probably as a result of welding inside a fuel tank.

The blast occurred aboard MSC Idil about 60 miles north of San Juan on May 11 while the ship was en route to Barcelona, Spain. The explosion damaged the hull in the cargo hold and fuel tank areas and resulted in the ship taking on water and developing a list.

The U.S. Coast Guard said watchstanders were notified of the explosion at about 1542 via Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and a VHF radio mayday transmission. The ship’s crew controlled the flooding and stabilized the ship through the use of onboard pumping equipment.

The vessel crew reported that the explosion was most likely the result of onboard welding operations in the ship’s No. 5 starboard fuel tank. They said MSC Idil remained under their control. At the time of the accident the ship was carrying 588,000 gallons of fuel oil and 62,000 gallons of diesel.

The Coast Guard responded with assets that included a 45-foot Response Boat Medium from Coast Guard Station San Juan, MH-65 Dolphin helicopters from Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen and an HC-144 Ocean Sentry Aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Miami.

Once the Coast Guard determined that the situation presented no safety risk to the 25-person crew and that there was no risk of pollution, Coast Guard cutters Matinicus and Sapelo stood by ready to provide assistance.

“As the situation stabilized we were able to work together — the Coast Guard, the MSC Idil (crew) and the salvage team, to protect those in danger from the sea and protect the sea itself,” said Capt. Drew W. Pearson, Sector San Juan commander.

The Coast Guard said the key to the success of the response was the combined effort from the Coast Guard, MSC, Donjon-Smit, Atlantic Diving, Borinquen Towing, and San Juan Towing.

After 11 days and the completion of temporary repairs made to the ship’s hull off the coast of Puerto Rico, the Panamanian-flagged ship and its Indian crew were permitted to transit to Freeport, Bahamas, for further damage assessment and more permanent repairs.

The ship is owned by MSC Ship Management Hong Kong Ltd., a wholly owned ship agency of Mediterranean Shipping Co. S.A. in Geneva, Switzerland. There were no injuries or pollution and the cause of the accident is under investigation by the owner. The company didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

The explosion happened in international waters, and the Coast Guard said it is not investigating the cause. Flag-state officials at the Panama Maritime Authority couldn’t be reached for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff