Three men burned when flammable vapors ignite, barge explodes


Three people suffered severe burns when an empty gasoline barge exploded and later sank near downtown Mobile, Ala.

According to a preliminary U.S. Coast Guard investigation, gasoline vapors that accumulated on and around the barges during cleaning at the Oil Recovery Co. Marine Terminal traveled into the engine room of a passing tugboat and ignited at about 2040 on April 24.

One member of the cleaning crew and two people aboard the tugboat Safety Runner were injured in the blasts, the Coast Guard said in a news release.

“The resulting explosions and fire critically injured three persons, created a 30-gallon oil spill in the Mobile River, caused fire damage to the tug and destroyed the two tank barges,” Coast Guard Lt. Mike Clausen said in a statement.

The injured men were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment and the fires were put out by the City of Mobile Fire Department and local harbor tugs outfitted with fire monitors.

Several local and federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), also are investigating the incident.

According to the Coast Guard, cleaning crews from Oil Recovery Co. had begun cleaning the two gasoline barges owned by Kirby Inland Marine shortly before the explosions. The crew was pumping residual gasoline from the barges and using mechanical blowers to ventilate the fumes.

Early into this process, however, all of the blowers were shut down while crews began repairs on one blower that was malfunctioning, the Coast Guard said. This allowed gasoline vapors to collect around the barges’ tanks and on the water’s surface immediately adjacent to the barges.

Safety Runner arrived at the same pier as the workers were repairing the blower. As the vessel approached, vapors from the gasoline barge traveled into the tugboat’s engines and engine space, ignited and caused a brief fire, the Coast Guard said.

“The resulting fire spread across the accumulated flammable vapors from the towing vessel and back to the adjacent tank barges,” Clausen said. “This chain of events caused the flammable vapors within the tank barge’s cargo tanks to explode and engulf the barges in fire.”

Six other explosions soon followed, creating a massive fireball. The explosion tore a hole in the gas tanks and ultimately sank the gas barge and another barge nearby.

The explosions were heard up to six miles away and damaged a building more than 150 feet away, Clausen said. The blasts temporarily disrupted repairs on the cruise ship Carnival Triumph across the bay, he said.

The sunken barges are Kirby 28194 and Kirby 28182, the Coast Guard said.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of Texas resident Casey Tyson, one of the injured men, accuses several parties of negligence, including Kirby Inland Marine, of Channelview, Texas; Oil Recovery Co. of Alabama, and AEP River Operations of Chesterfield, Mo., which owns Safety Runner.

Tyson’s attorney, Skip Finkbohner of Mobile, declined to comment. Oil Recovery Co. and Kirby Inland Marine did not answer requests for comment.

“The investigation of the explosion remains ongoing and a cause has not yet been determined,” said Melissa McHenry, director of external communications for AEP. “Our thoughts continue to be with the injured individuals and their loved ones.”

There are several safe methods for venting gasoline vapors, said John Hess, project manager with the Portland, Maine, consulting firm Safety Management Systems.

One calls for pumping an inert gas into the tank to sharply reduce the oxygen levels, thereby preventing combustion. Another calls for using special mechanical blowers to safely ventilate the fumes through vents located well above the deck.

Regardless of the method, he said the goal is to reduce the presence of oxygen and gasoline vapors below the flammable range of the gasoline.

There are several “best practice” guidelines for safely venting gasoline fumes. The International Safety Guide for Oil Tankers and Terminals, or ISGOTT, publishes a widely followed set of standards, Clausen said. OSHA also publishes safety guidelines.

Clausen said the Coast Guard is not pursuing criminal charges.

By Professional Mariner Staff