Great Lakes bulk carrier seriously damaged by fire during layup

Roger Blough
Roger Blough
A tugboat shifted the ship about 20 feet to port during the firefighting response, left, creating separation from the adjacent bulk

The Great Lakes freighter Roger Blough may have carried its last load.

The 858-foot bulk carrier caught fire early on Feb. 1 while docked at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., for an extended layup. The fire burned for nearly 12 hours, causing serious damage to the ship’s cargo conveyor belt and aft spaces above and below deck.

Roger Blough’s ship keeper was asleep in his room at the time but escaped without injury, Sturgeon Bay Fire Chief Tim Dietman said. He estimated total damage to the ship at more than $20 million.

“The origin of the fire was in the engine room near a winter furnace,” Dietman said, adding that the specific cause remains under investigation.

Roger Blough, named for a former chairman of U.S. Steel, is part of Canadian National Railway’s Great Lakes fleet based in Duluth, Minn. The U.S.-flagged ship typically carries taconite, a sedimentary rock containing iron. Keystone Shipping Co., based outside Philadelphia, operates the vessel. Canadian National referred questions about the incident to Keystone, which did not respond to an inquiry.

Roger Blough arrived at Bay Shipbuilding last summer. Keystone officials at the time attributed the layup of the ship and two other bulk carriers, Philip R. Clarke and Edgar B. Speer, to the pandemic-related economic slowdown.

There was no repair work happening on the ship when the fire started, according to Todd Thayse, vice president and general manager at Bay Shipbuilding. Roger Blough was tied up between Interlake Steamship Co.’s James R. Barker and American Steamship Co.’s American Mariner. Neither of those ships caught fire, but James R. Barker sustained modest smoke damage in some aft internal spaces, Dietman said.

Workers at Bay Shipbuilding reported the fire at 0138 after noticing thick black smoke rising from the stack. Firefighters arrived within four minutes but struggled to access the vessel due to smoke and intense heat.

“Crews were going to make entry (from) the main deck, and when they got to the aft end and opened a starboard door, they were met with heavy, thick black smoke from ceiling to floor,” Dietman said. “They attempted entry but it was so thick they had to back out.”

Firefighters tried other ways to get into the ship, including through a cargo tunnel, but they were turned back. Soon afterward, they saw heavy smoke coming from the ship’s stern. “And at that point we knew we had a belt fire,” Dietman said, referring to the thick rubber conveyor belt.

Crews used a cutting torch to open holes above the ship’s 01 deck, allowing hose teams to spray water inside. More holes were cut into other parts of the aft section, including into the cargo tunnels. The temperature exceeded 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit on the 01 deck, causing firefighters’ boots to stick to the deck on which they were standing.

Conditions improved by daybreak and crews began attacking the fire from inside. They were able to extinguish belt fires in some areas despite flames and high heat. “Once we got that controlled, everything got better pretty quick,” the fire chief said.

Responders cut Roger Blough loose from the two surrounding ships in case the situation escalated. A tugboat shifted the vessel about 20 feet to port, creating separation on the starboard side for better access. Firefighters dispensed roughly 1.4 million gallons of water during the response.

The Roger Blough fire is the second major incident involving a laid-up laker in two years. The bulker St. Clair caught fire in February 2019 in the Port of Toledo, Ohio, and burned for nearly 36 hours. Total damage exceeded $150 million.

St. Clair was undergoing repairs when the fire started. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were unable to determine with certainty what caused the fire, which started in an engine room workshop.

Roger Blough entered service in 1972, a year later than expected, after a fire in its engine room left four people dead in June 1971. Four years later, in November 1975, the bulker assisted in the search for the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. Roger Blough’s crew ultimately recovered a 25-person life raft from the ill-fated ship.

Following the Feb. 1 fire, Dietman described Roger Blough’s interior spaces as “filthy, nasty and dirty from soot and fire,” with serious fire damage below deck. It was not clear at press time if the ship would be repaired.

Casey Conley

By Professional Mariner Staff