Ferry stalls in Hudson River after ice causes engine-room fire

The U.S. Coast Guard has determined that a fire that damaged a Hudson River commuter ferry was caused by an engine overheating after ice blocked the exhaust intake strainers.

No one was seriously injured in the Jan. 26 fire on board New York Waterway’s Moira Smith, but there was extensive damage to the engine room, the Coast Guard and company said.

The 65-foot craft, with 25 passengers, was five minutes out from the Edgewater, N.J., terminal on its way to Manhattan when the captain began receiving a series of engine exhaust system alarms at about 0925. The ferry carried a two-person crew.

Coast Guard Lt. Joseph Johnson, the investigating officer for Group New York, said ice in the river that had partially clogged the engine intakes and caused the exhaust to run hot earlier in the morning had been cleared. The problem recurred during the trip, and the captain sent the deck hand into the engine space again.

“When he was clearing the strainer on the center engine, the deck hand noticed some steam and smelled the coolant from the starboard engine,” Johnson said. When he told the captain, he was instructed to go back down and shut down the starboard engine. “By the time the deck hand got back to the engine space, there was already smoke coming out of the hatch and it was smoldering so he couldn’t enter the space. They didn’t actually see flames.”

The captain, meanwhile, turned back to Edgewater and used his cell phone to alert the company.

“He made it to within two boat lengths of the dock before he lost all power,” Johnson said. When the ferry stopped moving, smoke began to enter the passenger cabin, so the passengers were guided up to the bow. The captain set off the fixed fire-extinguishing system.

New York Waterway sent out two other boats to assist. Robert Roe transferred the passengers and George Washington towed the disabled ferry to the shore where the Edgewater Fire Department was waiting. When the firefighters got on board about 1005, the fire was almost out, Johnson said.

“The source of the ignition for this fire was the center engine exhaust manifold,” Johnson said. “The fiberglass went up because resin is rated for 250 degrees and diesel exhaust is 700 to 1,100 degrees. Once you lose cooling flow, which it appears they did because of the alarms and ice blockage, your fiberglass is going to ignite.”

Capt. Alan Warren, New York Waterway’s director of ferry operations, said “obviously the crew knew how to react and the boat reacted the way it was designed.”

He said the engines and engine room, including melted aluminum overhead structural members, would be rebuilt at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000. The ferry was expected to be back in service in April.

Moira Smith‘s capacity is 100 passengers. Built in 2001, the vessel is named for a New York City police officer killed on 9/11. It had rescued passengers and crew from U.S. Airways Flight 1549 when the airliner made an emergency landing in the Hudson two years ago.

Bill Bleyer

By Professional Mariner Staff