NTSB: Leaking hydraulic fluid likely led to 2008 riverboat blaze

The 2008 fire aboard the sternwheeler Queen of the West on the Columbia River in Oregon was probably caused by hydraulic fluid leaking onto hot exhaust piping, federal investigators said.

As a result of the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that similar passenger vessels be equipped with fire-detection and suppression systems in their engine rooms.

The 221-foot riverboat’s engine room caught fire April 8, with 124 passengers and 53 crewmembers aboard. In a November 2009 report, the NTSB said the probable cause was the failure of a pressurized hydraulic component on the port main engine.

“One of the hydraulic hoses that serviced portside pumps 3 and 4 had failed,†the NTSB wrote. “The fire was caused by hot surface ignition of hydraulic oil. The hydraulic oil leak was in the form of an atomized spray; therefore, it created a fuel-air mixture that ignited when it came into contact with the near-800° F exhaust piping.â€

At the time, Queen of the West was operated by Ambassadors International Inc.’s Majestic America Line, which went out of business. Vanessa Bloy, spokeswoman for another Ambassadors International subsidiary, Windstar Cruises, said “Majestic America Line’s No. 1 priority was the safety of its guests and crew.â€

Investigators examined Queen of the West’s diesel-hydraulic propulsion system. This consists of two 1,600-hp Cummins KTA50s, each driving four hydraulic pumps supplying power to the shaft motors on the sternwheel. The chief engineer told the NTSB that all hydraulic hoses were replaced during a 2008 shipyard visit, and the U.S. Coast Guard visually inspected the work during the sea trial four days before the fire.

Built in 1995, Queen of the West complied with old sub-chapter T rules and was not required to have an emergency generator, automatic fire-detection or a fixed fire-suppression system. The report praised Majestic America for its decision to install fire alarms and a CO2 firefighting system when it acquired the ship in 2006, saying this “limited the fire damage and enhanced the survivability of passengers and crew.â€

The NTSB said that early use of the CO2 system “avoided a forced evacuation and likely prevented significant injuries and loss of life.â€

The NTSB recommended that all passenger vessels certified to carry more than 49 passengers be fitted with fire-detection sensors and a fixed fire-suppression system in the engine room. The Coast Guard did not concur, citing costs, lack of injuries from similar accidents, and the small number of fires that would be affected.

Queen of the West was pushed to shore by a nearby tug, and everyone disembarked without injury. However, the NTSB was alarmed that the ship’s only rescue boat was an inflatable dinghy seating four passengers and two crew, because there are no Coast Guard requirements for this vessel to be equipped with survival craft. The board recommended that survival craft for all passengers and crew should be provided on small passenger vessels on all routes. •

Peter Marsh

By Professional Mariner Staff