Probe: Towboat fire spread because of inability to secure engine room

A fire aboard a Mississippi River towboat in 2012 spread rapidly and caused severe damage because the crew was unable to shut down ventilation and deploy suppression, according to an investigative report.

Examiners were unable to pinpoint what sparked the fire aboard Marguerite L. Terral, and the cause will probably never be known, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said. It took only five minutes before the blaze that started in the engine room got out of control and forced the crew to abandon ship.

“Contributing to the extent of the fire damage was the crew’s failure to set fire boundaries, shut down the ventilation, and use the onboard fire suppression equipment effectively,” said the NTSB’s report, issued in March 2014.

The June 9, 2012 incident on the Lower Mississippi prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to issue a Marine Safety Alert addressing the location of pressure switches for fixed fire suppression systems. The Coast Guard said the pressure switch to operate the CO2 fire suppression system and close down ventilation was inside Marguerite L. Terral’s engine room, where the fire started.

Marguerite L. Terral was at mile marker 911 near Hickman, Ky., when the fire broke out in the port engine just after 1700. An alarm sounded, but the smoke and flames were so intense that the crew was unable to set off the CO2 suppression system. Three minutes after the alarm sounded the crew tried to put out the fire with portable CO2 extinguishers.

Two minutes later the blaze was so widespread that the captain ordered everyone to abandon ship. Virtually the whole superstructure was destroyed, while the only damage below decks was to the engine room. Damage was estimated to be $2.6 million.

“The fire suppression system could also have been activated directly from the manual pull at the CO2 bottles located in the steering gear room; however, no evidence indicates that the crew attempted to activate the system from this room,” the Coast Guard said in a report cited in the NTSB document.

The Coast Guard’s 2012 Safety Alert emphasized safety standards for siting switches outside the areas to be protected.

“These regulations require all controls and valves for the operation of the system to be outside the space protected, and notes they cannot be located in any space that might be cut off or made inaccessible in the event of fire in the protected spaces,” the Safety Alert said.

“Securing the ventilation is essential in extinguishing a fire on board a vessel. It assists in isolating the fire within the space, minimizes the introduction of additional oxygen to fuel the fire and prevents the loss of fire suppression agents from the space,” the alert said.

“If the crew had activated the vessel’s fixed CO2 system, the ventilation system in the engine room would have automatically shut down,” according to the Coast Guard. “Because the crew did not do that, they would now have to close the ventilation manually. However, the ventilation shutdown levers were located inside the engine room, and the fire and thick smoke prevented the crew from accessing them. The ventilation in the engine room was therefore not shut down.”

“According to crew statements, the crew did not close the doors to the engine room while discharging the CO2,” said the Coast Guard.

The six-man crew all got off safely, jumping onto one of the 12 empty barges the boat was pushing.

Johnny Martin, chief operating officer for the boat’s owner, Terral River Service, told Professional Mariner that the government reports are fair and describe the events accurately. The company also is unsure what caused the fire.

“Something could have happened in the turbocharger area, because the fire was so hot,” Martin said. “Something could have dropped down there, but we just don’t know.”

Terral River Service’s crews are fully trained to the latest standards set up by the authorities. “They did their best and they did their job,” Martin said. “Training is one thing, but being in that situation is another.”

The Marguerite L. Terral fire was one of the incidents reviewed by the Coast Guard’s Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC), which recently issued recommendations to improve fire safety. Capt. Eric Johansson, chairman of the TSAC subcommittee, said the episode underscores the need for vigilance.

“This was the sort of fire that typically breaks out. The crew did what they could in the time they had,” Johansson said. “Fire boundaries must be secured — and remember that there are six sides — the four walls plus the floor and deck above. The approach to marine fires is to limit the oxygen, secure the fuel lines and sources.”

Marguerite L. Terral has since been repaired and is back in service.

By Professional Mariner Staff