NTSB: Sparks hit diesel-soaked toolbox, set tugboat on fire

A fire aboard a tugboat undergoing repairs in Baltimore Harbor probably began when sparks from a cutting torch ignited a toolbox, federal investigators said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report indicates that a toolbox became soaked in diesel fuel over the years, providing a likely platform for flames to spread.

“The probable cause of the fire … was sparks from welding and cutting repair work conducted with an oxygen-acetylene torch igniting unprotected combustible material in the engine room,” the report said.

The fire occurred Oct. 10, 2011, as the 1,350-hp tugboat Ivory Coast was docked at General Ship Repair’s facilities in Baltimore. The vessel, which is operated by Dann Marine Towing of Chesapeake City, Md., arrived four days before the fire for replacement of rub rails and other components.

Four people were aboard the vessel when the fire began in the early afternoon but none were injured.

The repairs occurred without incident on Oct. 7 and on the morning of Oct. 10. But that afternoon, the shipfitter felt “intense heat on his safety jacket and pants” while working on the engine room’s starboard side.

“The shipfitter told Coast Guard investigators he secured the torch, relieved the fire watch of the fire hose, and a short time later located a CO2 portable fire extinguisher and discharged it at the deck plates but with no effect,” the report said.

The fire was quickly out of control on the 110-foot vessel.

The Baltimore City Fire Department was dispatched to extinguish the blaze, which caused “extensive” damage to the tug’s engine room, engine components and galley. The damage is estimated at more than $1 million, according to the NTSB.

Investigators later learned the chief engineer of Ivory Coast had been working in the engine room prior to the afternoon hot work on Oct. 10.

“The chief engineer stated that before starting hot work he drained and disconnected the diesel oil manifold so the shipfitter could gain access for the repairs,” the report said. “He also said that below the manifold was a wooden toolbox, which over time had become saturated with diesel oil.”

It wasn’t clear whether the toolbox was left there by the chief engineer or was normally stored in the engine room.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tested residues left by the fire and confirmed the presence of diesel oil on the wooden box, the report said.

The incident is now the subject of a lawsuit between Dann Marine and General Ship Repair. Christopher Dann, of Dann Marine, declined to comment on the report’s findings while the lawsuit is pending.

“I have seen the report and given the fact that we are in litigation mode, I would hesitate to comment further,” he said.

General Ship Repair referred questions to its attorney, Edward Radzik of the law firm Marshall Dennehey. Radzik declined to comment, but noted in an e-mail that the NTSB report and its findings will not be allowed into evidence during the lawsuit proceedings.

The suit is currently in the pre-trial discovery phase and no trial date has been set, he said.

Dann said Ivory Coast is still undergoing repairs from the fire.

By Professional Mariner Staff