NTSB: Electrical issue likely cause of intense tugboat fire off Florida


The fire that gutted the oceangoing tugboat Thomas Dann last year likely started near an engine room fuse box, federal investigators said in a recent report.

However, two fire experts could not determine the exact cause of the blaze, which occurred at about 1700 on July 22, 2016, while the 105-foot tug towed a cement barge in the Atlantic Ocean off central Florida.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “the probable cause of the fire aboard towing vessel Thomas Dann was an ignition originating near an electrical fuse box in the upper engine room.”

The presence of extra fire hoses and other combustible material in the upper engine room contributed to the fire’s intensity, which prevented crews from mounting an internal defense, the agency said.

All six crewmembers escaped into a life raft soon after the fire started and no one was injured. The 41-year-old twin-screw tug, valued at $2.5 million, was considered a total loss.

Thomas Dann was towing the 343-foot barge EMI-1152 from New York City to Cape Canaveral, Fla., when the fire started. The vessels were offshore of St. Augustine, Fla., at the time and less than a day from their destination.

The mate helming the tug noticed an upper engine room alarm at about the same time a deck hand saw smoke. The captain alerted the Coast Guard by radio while the mate investigated the fire. By then it was already out of control.

“The fire had spread to the dining room, galley and several staterooms located on the main deck,” the report said, noting that the captain attempted to steer the tug to prevent a collision with the barge. The tug lost power within a minute.

Based on the findings, the NTSB report suggests the captain and crew responded to the fire in a calm and orderly manner. Minutes after smoke was reported, for instance, crew reported to the wheelhouse with life jackets and immersion suits.

As conditions worsened, crew removed the life raft from its case and attached it to the bow rail. When the captain issued the abandon-ship order, they inflated the craft and climbed into it. A nearby sportfishing boat rescued the crew and carried them back to shore.

Crews from the Jacksonville Fire Department’s marine unit fought the fire, which the NTSB said burned out the day after it started. The tugboat El Puma Grande towed the burned-out Thomas Dann to a Green Cove Springs shipyard, while the tug Elsbeth III hauled the barge to Cape Canaveral.

The Coast Guard dispatched an inspection team that worked alongside an investigator hired by vessel owner Dann Ocean Towing of Tampa, Fla. Damage was most significant in the upper engine room, where extra hoses and a drum of waste oil were stored.

“An electrical fuse box that was located on a vertical post in the central portion of the upper engine room bore evidence of electrical arcing at its aft side,” the report said. “There was also evidence of electrical arcing to wiring in this area. As a result of the heat damage, the source of those wires could not be traced.”

Dann Ocean Towing did not respond to requests for comment. 

By Professional Mariner Staff