Fumigation gas sickens 16 crewmembers aboard dry bulk ship near Welland Canal

Sixteen crewmembers aboard a bulk carrier on Lake Erie needed rescue after they inhaled dangerous levels of a gas that had been used to fumigate their load of grain.

The crew of the 618-foot Hermann Schoening fell terribly ill Dec. 21, 2010, while their vessel was near the Welland Canal. Rescue officials said the culprit was phosphine gas.

The Liberian-flagged Hermann Schoening had taken on a cargo of grain in Milwaukee and was proceeding to Montreal when most of the crew became sick. The hold had been fumigated during loading in Milwaukee.

Investigators determined that the gas got out of the hold in the ship into a conduit, a piping canal underneath the storage areas. It was drawn through a supposed watertight, airtight door and into the ventilation room. From there, it circulated into the crew quarters, said Tom Cartwright, the fire chief in Port Colborne, Ontario.

St. Lawrence Seaway officials halted the vessel offshore in Lake Erie, and the ship’s master attempted to get assistance. A rescue team led by Cartwright responded to the ship. The responders included a pair of commercial vessels ready to help evacuate the sickened crew.

A sick Chinese crewman, wearing a protective harness, climbs down a ladder from the dry bulk carrier Hermann Schoening while a Port Colborne, Ontario, firefighter waits to assist him on the tugboat Seahound. The phosphine gas that made the crew ill had been used to fumigate the cargo of grain the ship took on in Milwaukee. (Teagan Workman photo)

Cartwright said the levels of phosphine gas aboard the ship exceeded safe levels for humans.

“When the team went on board, as soon as they entered the crew quarters they detected 1.5 ppm of phosphine gas,” Cartwright told Professional Mariner. “The crew were in their crew quarters and it was cold so they had closed all the windows. They were lying in their bunks continuing to breathe the gas.”

He said his responders opened the windows before evacuating the stricken crewmembers.

Overexposure to phosphine gas causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, thirst, chest tightness, breathing difficulty, muscle pain, chills, stupor and pulmonary edema. The eight-hour average respiratory exposure should not exceed 0.3 ppm, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. NIOSH recommends that the short-term respiratory exposure to phosphine gas should not exceed 1 ppm. A level of 50 ppm is considered “immediately dangerous to life or health.”

Hermann Schoening is owned by Intersee Schiffahrtsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG of Germany.

The unique rescue involved several agencies, in addition to the commercial boats. In a conference call with Health Canada, the ship’s agent Gibson Canadian & Global Agency Inc. and Transport Canada, Cartwright was apprised of the situation and volunteered to take charge.

“I was informed that we had a ship three miles off the entry point to the Seaway at the Welland Canal and that the crewmembers were sick and they were looking for somebody to assist,” Cartwright said. “They thought it was phosphine gas or food poisoning, and they had difficulty in finding an agency able to assist them.”

Even though it was outside of his response area, Cartwright immediately began coordinating the rescue. He said he asked the other participants “to forward me as much information as possible, and very quickly they e-mailed me a fumigation certificate and copy of information regarding toxic material that could or would be used concerning fumigation.”

The chief gathered his hazmat team, and the ship’s representative prepared to send a chemist from Montreal. The Canadian Coast Guard began readying a helicopter to fly to the ship, if needed.

Port Colborne-based Cooper Marine, which supplies vessels that transport pilots, offered the 50-foot J.W. Cooper, a steel-hulled vessel powered by twin 400-hp John Deere engines. The 65-foot tug/icebreaker Seahound, owned by Nadro Marine of Port Dover, Ontario, also responded.

The flotilla rendezvoused and sailed to Hermann Schoening. Once on board, they found the crew confined in their quarters, which had made things worse for them.

The Fort Erie Fire Department deployed two Zodiac rigid-hull inflatable rescue vessels and assisted in transferring 16 of the vessel’s 21 crewmembers to shore.

“We took some of them in with the Cooper but we are only licensed for six,” J.W. Cooper captain Craig Workman said. “I then stood standby with the Cooper and the Zodiacs ran some crewmembers in.”

Once ashore they were transported to four area hospitals after being examined by EMS. Canada Customs and Niagara Regional Police assisted in identification of the crewmembers, Cartwright said.

All 16 crewmembers were released from the hospital the next day, and Workman said he transported them back out to Hermann Schoening.

The ship sailed away Dec. 23 after it met conditions set by Transport Canada, including a promise to seal leakage points permanently at Montreal and to monitor the health of crewmembers and the levels of gas on the ship, said Transport Canada spokeswoman Pamela Mintern. The crew was examined again upon arrival in Montreal, and one crewman with high levels of phosphine in his system was sent home.

Thomas Nintemann, head of Intersee’s legal and insurance department, said all of the crewmembers recovered, with no long-term adverse health effects. The air-quality problem aboard the ship was resolved, he said without providing specifics. “The situation is solved,” Nintemann said.

Cartwright said the lake conditions aided in the unusual rescue.

“It was done through thinking out a process of getting the crew off the ship as fast as possible without potential problems for the rescuers,” he said. “It was a relatively cool night, but it was calm. The weather conditions were ideal to do something like that.”

Michel Drouin

By Professional Mariner Staff