NTSB calls for built-in firefighting systems for older ferries

An investigation of the fire on a Boston commuter ferry in June 2006 has prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend that all such vessels have fire-detection and fixed fire-suppression systems in their engine rooms.

The blaze in the engine room of the ferry Massachusetts resulted in no injuries but caused $800,000 in damage, the NTSB said in a March report.

Coast Guard regulations require small passenger vessels built after March 1996 to have built-in fire-suppression and fire-detection systems in any space containing propulsion equipment. Such equipment is not required on older ferries such as Massachusetts, which was built in 1988.

A maintenance contractor’s mistake likely caused the blaze on Massachusetts at 1615 on June 12, 2006, the NTSB said. The ferry caught fire during a scheduled run between Rowe’s Wharf and Hingham, Mass. The crew was able to anchor the vessel in shallow water, and all 66 passengers were evacuated onto the Boston Harbor Cruises ferry Laura.

The two-deck, aluminum ferryhad undergone repairs at the Charlestown docks less than two hours earlier.

The 100-foot ferry was built by Gulf Craft Inc. in Patterson, La., for Massachusetts Bay Lines. It is allowed to carry as many as 346 passengers and four crew. The vessel is powered by four 675-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines.

It was sent to the Charlestown yard that afternoon because, among other problems, the port inboard engine was experiencing high idle speed. A mechanic, who had 12 years of experience, replaced a faulty fuel injector in that engine. NTSB investigators found a disconnected fuel jumper line when they inspected the fire-damaged engine.

“The probable cause of the fire on board the Massachusetts was the ignition of diesel fuel by contact with a hot engine surface, which occurred because a fuel line attached to the fuel injector was not properly connected during engine maintenance by the contract mechanic,†the NTSB said. “Fuel leakage from the disconnected fuel jumper line would have allowed fuel to flow to the engine crankcase, accumulate, escape through the crankcase vent, contact the hot surface of the exhaust manifold below, and ignite,†the report said.

The Massachusetts master learned of the fire when the upper-deck deck hand noticed black smoke at the stern.

Jay Spence, general manager of Massachusetts Bay Lines, said the master made his way toward the engine room but decided not to open the door because he felt heat coming from inside. The crew of four instead waited for a fireboat to arrive, and the marine firefighters extinguished the blaze.

The fire severely damaged the port inboard engine and burned or melted coolant lines and wiring insulation elsewhere in the engine room. Salt water from the firefighting effort submerged the other three engines.

Better fire-response systems would have resulted is less damage and a lower risk to people’s safety, the NTSB said.

“Contributing to the extent of the damage was the absence of a fixed fire detection and suppression system, which precluded the crew from receiving timely notification of the fire and which allowed the blaze to spread throughout the engine room,†the NTSB report said.

When the Coast Guard approved new fire-safety regulations in 1996, some older passenger vessels with wooden materials were required to be retrofitted with fire-detection and suppression systems by 1999. Other existing vessels made of steel or aluminum were not forced to install such equipment due to lower casualty risk and high costs.

“The absence of a requirement for a fire detection and suppression system aboard the Massachusetts put the vessel, its passengers and its crew at greater danger,†NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker said.

The NTSB report recommends that the Coast Guard “require that all small passenger vessels certified to carry more than 49 passengers, regardless of date of build or hull material, be fitted with an approved fire-detection system and a fixed fire-suppression system in their engine rooms.â€

It will now be up to the Coast Guard to decide whether to implement the NTSB recommendation.

By Professional Mariner Staff