Engine room fire leads to death of two crewmembers on ammunition ship

An engine room fire fed by oil took the lives of two crewmen aboard Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., an ammunition ship docked at Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal near Wilmington, N.C.

Smoke-blackened area around the stack of Sgt. Carter indicates intensity of fire that caused about $20 million in damage. Flames were fed by a fuel oil leak in engine room.

Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., a 950-foot container vessel owned by Maersk Line and operated for the U.S. Military Sealift Command, was carrying a cargo of containerized munitions when the fire broke out July 14, 2001. The fire was restricted to the engine room and did not damage the munitions.

One crewmember was found dead in the engine room. The other victim is believed to have jumped off the ship during the fire. His body was recovered three days later in the Cape Fear River. The ship sustained about $20 million in damage.

U.S. Coast Guard investigators know that a fuel oil spill in the engine room fed the flames, but they are still trying to determine how the fuel got there and what ignited it.

Lt. Cmdr. Rick Raksnis, senior investigating officer of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Wilmington, collected testimony from 20 witnesses during an eight-day hearing in Wilmington that concluded in early August. He was expected to complete his report by Thanksgiving.

“We had an oil fire; that’s for sure,” Raksnis said. “The biggest question I had was how did the oil get from point A to point B. There are a couple of theories on the path it could have taken.”

The oil apparently spilled into the engine room exhaust stack area from a chamber designed to collect vapors from a variety of fuel tanks and then vent those vapors into the atmosphere. Several of the vent pipes leading to the vapor collection chamber had been disconnected three days before the fire by crewmembers searching for a blockage in one of the lines.

The collection chamber was not designed to hold liquid fuel. In fact, one of the disconnected pipes served as a drain to keep any liquid from accumulating in the collection chamber. Since this pipe and four others had been disconnected, any liquid that did find its way into the collection chamber could leak into the engine room exhaust stack area.

“With the lines disconnected, including the drain line, you no longer have that integrity” of the fuel system, Raksnis said.

If fuel was being pumped through the system under pressure, some of it could conceivably have found its way to the collection chamber and its disconnected lines.

The ship’s second engineer testified at the hearing that no fuel was being moved at the time of the fire. “Several times he denied there was any transfer going on,” Raksnis said, describing that testimony as “pretty powerful.”

However, investigators found that multiple valves used to transfer fuel oil were in the open position. Normally those valves would be closed when a transfer is completed.

“Was there a fuel oil transfer going on before the fire?” Raksnis asked. “If the valves were open, it could have happened.”

Determining the source of the fire has also been difficult. A number of possible sources are under consideration. “That’s been more difficult than finding the source of the oil,” he said.

Raksnis hopes that his investigation will help the Coast Guard make recommendations that could prevent a recurrence of the events aboard Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr.

The ship has about a dozen sister ships built in Korea in the mid-80s. “There’s a lot to learn here and share,” Raksnis said.

By Professional Mariner Staff