NTSB: Spraying lube oil caused fire on Lower Mississippi towboat


The towboat George King was upbound on the Lower Mississippi River pushing 30 empty barges when the captain noticed a flash from behind. He turned and saw flames rising from the port exhaust stack.

Crew fought the fire but intense heat kept them from entering the engine room, where the port engine was ablaze. The firefighting team never activated George King’s fixed fire suppression system, although National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators suggested it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The incident occurred at about 2030 on Jan. 24, 2018, at mile marker 393.6 near St. Joseph, La. The nine crew escaped to a barge without injury, although an explosion knocked down the chief engineer during firefighting. The towboat burned for almost 12 hours and damage exceeded $500,000.

The NTSB determined that oil spraying from a pressurized lube oil strainer ignited against a hot surface in the engine room. The fire spread due to challenges fighting the flames and the crew’s inability to seal off the engine room.

“Because of the risks associated with engine room fires, the effectiveness of fixed firefighting systems is critical,” the NTSB accident report said. “Had the system been activated, its effectiveness would have been limited because the port-side doors to the engine room were open and several windows were broken.”

Marquette Transportation operated the 12,280-hp, 42-year-old towboat, which was bound for Wickliffe, Ky., on the night of the incident. The chief engineer conducted rounds twice in three hours before the fire started and found nothing unusual. The captain noticed flames exiting the port stack about 30 minutes after that last check.

The captain sounded the general alarm from the wheelhouse and crew mustered in the galley, located adjacent to the engine room. The chief engineer opened a door into the forward section of the space and saw that the port main engine was “completely engulfed in flames.” The towboat was equipped with two GM-EMD 16-cylinder diesels.

Two two-man firefighting teams sprayed water into the engine room from windows on the port and starboard sides of the towboat. Their streams couldn’t reach the flames and had little effect on the fire. The captain then ordered the halon fixed fire suppression system deployed.

“The chief engineer tried to reach the port halon activation station located on the aft section of the house,” the report said. “This required him to walk past the engine room doors. However, the flames erupting from the broken engine room windows and open double doors prevented him from proceeding down the port side of the vessel.”

Two deck hands moved along the starboard side of the vessel closing engine room windows. They soon met the chief engineer, who asked if “they got it,” referring to activation of the halon system from the starboard side. The deck hands answered yes, believing he asked if they shut the starboard windows. However, the port-side doors and exhaust vents remained open and several engine room windows had broken, the report said. Thinking the halon system was operating, the captain ordered crew off the burning towboat.

Marquette Transportation hired a forensic investigator who zeroed in on the port engine lube oil strainer as the cause of the fire. Authorities could not find the component after the accident, suggesting heat in that section of the engine was intense enough to melt aluminum.

“It is likely that atomized lube oil spraying from the port strainer was ignited after making contact with a hot surface near the strainer housing, which progressed into a continuous burning fire after an initial flashover,” the NTSB report said.

After the fire, investigators learned George King’s crew had held firefighting drills but lacked personal protective equipment that could have allowed them to get closer to the flames. The towboat was not required to carry such equipment, although the NTSB said fire teams without this gear are less likely to extinguish a fire or prevent it from spreading.

Marquette Transportation did not respond to a request for comment on the NTSB findings.

By Professional Mariner Staff