NTSB urges inspections of life raft releases, evacuation slides like those on cruise ship

Nico Corbijn, senior vice president of marine operations for Majestic America Lines, and U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brierley K. Ostrander, assistant chief of vessel inspections, Sector Juneau, examine a life raft aboard Empress of the North. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Following the grounding of Empress of the North in May, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has strongly urged the Coast Guard to examine the functioning of life raft safety release mechanisms and inflatable evacuation slides of the kind that malfunctioned aboard the stricken cruise ship.

In a letter to U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, the NTSB urgently recommended that the Coast Guard verify the functionality of the Hammar model H20 release mechanisms by inspecting a sample of the models, and conduct a one-time inspection and correction of evacuation slide deficiencies serviced by Marine Safety Services, a Seattle company.

The cruise vessel struck an island southwest of Juneau, Alaska, after failing to make the proper course change. All passengers were successfully evacuated and there were no injuries associated with the incident.

During the course of its investigation, the NTSB discovered serious deficiencies in the lift raft release mechanisms and the inflatable evacuation slides aboard the ship. The investigators were informed by crew that during the evacuation about one half of the ship’s 22 inflatable life rafts failed to inflate properly. In addition, the evacuation slide deployed upside down and had to be flipped over by the crew.

Each of the ship’s life rafts was equipped with two release mechanisms manufactured by CM Hammar AB, of Göteborg, Sweden, model HD20. One of the release mechanisms is designed to release the life raft from its cradle automatically, should the vessel sink. (Such a device is often referred to as a hydrostatic release mechanism.) The other is designed for manual release.

The automatic release mechanisms cut a line connecting the life raft to the ship once the unit is submerged. The manual release mechanism requires the use of a hand pump to cut the line, allowing the life raft to be dropped from its cradle alongside the vessel.

The chief mate told NTSB investigators that of the 13 life rafts that were launched, only about half of the manual release mechanisms severed the line when pumped. The rest had to be cut free by crewmembers using their own knives. According to evidence provided by the vessel’s owners, the release mechanisms had not been lubricated as directed by the manufacturer.

The other deficiency involved the ship’s evacuation slides. The inflatable slides are packed in soft-sided valises. When the crew aboard Empress of the North attempted to deploy the 20-foot slides, they inflated upside down. The crew had to flip them over manually so that the passengers could evacuate.

The slides were manufactured by DBC Marine Safety Systems Ltd., Richmond, British Columbia. They were inspected by Marine Safety Services in Seattle in February 2007. Marine Safety Services is a U.S. Coast Guard-authorized inspector of safety equipment.

Inspection requires inflating the slides and repacking them, which was apparently done incorrectly. The NTSB said there was no indication that the problem extends to other servicing facilities.

By Professional Mariner Staff