NTSB: Oil spray started fatal engine-room fire; new safety rules needed


A fatal engine-room fire aboard a tugboat on Lake Ontario in 2012 was sparked when leaking oil sprayed onto a hot surface, investigators have determined.

The chief engineer burned over 90 percent of his body and died. His only means of escape was an accommodation ladder that was in the path of the burning oil spray, which ignited his clothes, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The blaze aboard Patrice McAllister happened at 0229 on March 27, 2012, while the boat was transiting Lake Ontario near Prince Edward Point, Ontario. Federal officials are reviewing the incident as they study whether additional regulations are needed to prevent fires in the engine rooms of towing vessels.

The 4,400-hp tug was previously named Cleveland. McAllister Towing had recently acquired the vessel, which underwent refurbishment at a Toledo, Ohio, shipyard.

The fire was initially extinguished with CO2 but rekindled, destroying the boat. The crew were evacuated by a Canadian helicopter and cutter.

Investigators found that a fracture had covered 75 percent of the circumference of the pre-lubrication oil pump nipple/flange assembly next to the fillet weld. An estimated 35 gallons of oil spilled out.

The probable cause was “the ignition of lubricating oil that sprayed from a fatigue-fractured fitting on the portside main engine’s pre-lubrication oil pump onto the hot surface of the portside main engine’s exhaust manifold,” the report said.

“Contributing to the extent of the fire damage was the crewmembers’ compromise of the fire boundaries when they prematurely began de-smoking the vessel’s superstructure, the inability to completely secure the engine room’s fire boundaries and the abundance of flammable material throughout the vessel,” the investigators wrote.

Inside the engine room was Matthew James Hoban, 49, who had served as chief engineer during all 13 years of the vessel’s existence.

Hoban’s “only exit was an accommodation ladder leading to a watertight door onto the fiddley deck,” the report said. “Because the accommodation ladder was in the path of the oil spray fire, the chief engineer had to exit through the fire, which ignited his clothing. He collapsed on deck after exiting. … The oil spray fire also ignited combustible material on the fiddley deck.”

Deck crew extinguished the fire on his clothes, but he already burned over 90-plus percent of his body. Before releasing CO2 into the engine room from the vessel’s fixed firefighting system, they attempted to secure the centerline passageway by closing the aft watertight door leading to the weather deck and the forward watertight door to the galley.

“However, the crewmembers did not close the watertight door onto the fiddley deck through which the chief engineer had escaped,” the NTSB wrote. “Had the crew done so, the door would have helped segregate the centerline passageway from the engine room to the fiddley deck. In addition, no means existed to mechanically isolate the engine room’s exhaust and supply ventilation.”

The captain released the CO2. Patrice McAllister went adrift after the propulsion, generator and ventilation systems shut down. A reduction in heat and smoke led the captain to believe the fire had been extinguished. The crew opened doors to the superstructure to de-smoke it.

“This action compromised the fire boundary by allowing CO2 to escape and fresh air to enter the interior of the vessel, which caused the fire to re-flash. … Because the vessel had lost power, crewmembers were unable to run the main fire pump, and they had already released all of the CO2. The fire also blocked access to the portable fire pump,” the investigators said.

“As a result, the crewmembers were unable to fight the fire, which now raged out of control,” the report said. “It spread into the accommodation space and consumed all combustible material up through the upper wheelhouse.”

The blaze grew so large that the crew were unable to reach life rafts on the bridge deck. They huddled in survival suits at the stern awaiting rescue. The five surviving crewmembers were treated for smoke inhalation.

The NTSB noted that the Coast Guard already had issued proposed rules to make towing vessels safer from fires. Proposals applicable to Patrice McAllister include minimizing the accumulation of combustible materials, ensuring that spaces are sealed during firefighting responses and stowing the fire pump’s hose and nozzle outside the machinery space.

“Where practical, each space on an existing towing vessel where crew may be quartered or normally employed must have at least two means of escape,” the report said.

“The lack of fire dampers in ventilation systems, along with compromised boundaries due to holes, openings and casual modification, appear to be major problems in containing engine room fires,” the NTSB noted.

Craig Rising, a spokesman for McAllister Towing, said the company would have no comment on the NTSB report.

In September 2013, the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) issued recommendations to the Coast Guard to improve fire prevention in engine spaces. Specifically citing the Patrice McAllister fatality and other serious incidents, TSAC called for improved awareness of potential oil sprays, ignition and the risk of spillage from sounding pipes.

Bulkheads should be “intact and uncompromised,” TSAC wrote in a draft report that was discussed at a public meeting. Bulkheads need a metal door and fire-barrier material should be fitted where pipes or cables penetrate. Ventilation systems should provide a way to close off air flow.

By Professional Mariner Staff