Passengers all safe following engine room fire on Long Island ferry

Federal investigators are examining the fuel system of a Long Island ferry to determine what caused an engine room fire that resulted in more than $300,000 in damage to the 3-month-old vessel.

The Sept. 20, 2009, fire aboard the 85-foot Fire Island Belle prompted a U.S. Coast Guard safety alert warning the industry about the effects of vibration in an engine assembly.

The fire was discovered as Fire Island Belle traveled from Ocean Beach to Fair Harbor, both on New York’s Fire Island, at about 1030. A secondary fuel filter mounted on the center engine is the main focus of attention, said Tim Mooney, president of Fire Island Ferries Inc. of Bay Shore, N.Y.

In October, Ken Olsen, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for safety, said in a safety alert that “it appears that the fire was caused by a leaking pipe fitting attached to the fuel oil filter of the center engine. Fuel sprayed from the rear of the center engine to the port main engine exhaust piping and ignited.â€

But Lt. David Barnes, supervisor of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment in Coram, Long Island, cautioned the following month that “the cause of the fire is still under investigation.†Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board labs are testing engine components and the fuel, he said.

Olsen issued his safety warning after investigators found that plastic used in the engine room vent system had melted from the heat of the fire. But the agency said the vent had not failed and was not the cause of the fire.

“They were coming into Fair Harbor at the same time that smoke was noticed and alarms went off†when the vessel was roughly 100 yards from shore, Barnes said. “They brought it into Fair Harbor and safely evacuated all the passengers and then used a fixed CO2 firefighting system onboard.â€

Mooney said there was a brief flare-up when Fair Harbor Fire Department volunteers opened a deck hatch, and they quickly extinguished the flames.

None of the 130 passengers or three crewmembers were injured. The $2.5 million ferry, which can carry 382 passengers, was towed to its home berth in Bay Shore.

“We’re looking at the fuel system,†Barnes said. “There was no missing equipment†and the required alarms were in place and appear to have worked correctly.

Mooney said employees will be meeting with local fire departments to review firefighting and fire-prevention equipment and procedures. A new fire-safety handbook will be developed.

Mooney said the damage total will be between $300,000 and $500,000. When the engine room is rebuilt, the secondary fuel filters that had been mounted on the three engines will be moved to a remote location to eliminate vibration. Heat shields may be installed over pressure fuel lines as well.

In his safety alert, Olsen said the engine room was ventilated by four ceiling ducts containing dampers with the air drawn in from outside flowing past a moisture-eliminating filter.

According to Olsen, “when the extinguishing system was activated, all the dampers closed properly. However, after the fire it was noted that several external moisture eliminator filters were extremely damaged. High temperature gases flowed through it during the fire causing it to overheat and deform. … Investigators noted that if the filter had melted and fallen on or into the slot of the duct before the damper closed, it is likely to have interfered with the damper operation and possibly have reduced the effectiveness of the CO2 system.â€

Olsen noted that a leak at the fuel filter could have been caused by excessive vibration. “The original configuration was modified by adding a fitting that attached two additional sensors (for a total of four) to the fuel filter assembly…†He said operators should be “aware of the potential risks associated by adding components to an engine assembly and must take into account the effect of vibration on those components.â€

Bill Bleyer

By Professional Mariner Staff