Tug that caught fire on the Hudson lacked proper detection system

A tugboat damaged by a blaze on the Hudson River did not have the required fire-detection system, the Coast Guard said.

The fire aboard the tug may have been the result of spontaneous combustion from paint rags. The crew fled to safety aboard one of the empty sand barges it had been pushing. (Tommy Evans photo)

Spontaneous combustion involving paint rags in a fidley opening may have been the origin of the Aug. 31, 2008, fire aboard the Capt. Zeke, a Coast Guard investigator said. When their fire extinguishers proved inadequate, the tug crew fled to one of the barges.

Emergency responders from New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties extinguished the flames on the tug, which was pushing empty sand barges. Another tugboat kept the vessels from getting too close to the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The Coast Guard investigator, Chief Warrant Officer Chris Bisignano, said the fire likely started in an area of wooden lockers on the starboard side where the crew stored magazines, paint and cardboard boxes of spare parts. A conclusive cause wasn’t determined.

“Prior to this incident they have been painting on the starboard side on the deck, and they had put the paint back in the fidley space with their rags, and there were some magazines there too," Bisignano said. “It could have been spontaneous combustion of the stuff that was on the rags, like paint thinner."

The 64-foot Capt. Zeke was southbound, on its way to Jersey City, N.J., when a crewman discovered the fire in the fidley above the engine room. Built in 1980, the vessel was owned by White Near Coastal Towing Corp. of Brooklyn.

The crewman alerted the mate, who was at the helm, and the engineer and the master, who were off duty, Bisignano said. The mate issued mayday calls on Channels 16 and 13 just after 1700 hours, but received no response from the Coast Guard. Bisignano said recreational boaters relayed the information to the Nyack Fire Department.

Seven fire departments responded, along with the Sleepy Hollow police and marine units from Rockland County, Westchester County and Yonkers. They extinguished the blaze in about 20 minutes.

Before they arrived, the tug crew tried unsuccessfully to put out the flames before taking refuge on a barge. The tug was equipped with a semi-portable fire extinguisher in the fidley, but the crew could not reach it because of the blaze. They tried to use a fire station located outside the watertight door on the port side, but it would not work. A portable extinguisher was too small for the job.

The fire departments extinguished the fire before the tug and barges got closer than a mile and a half from the bridge. Another tug, Donald C, was summoned and towed the barges to an anchorage in New Jersey and the damaged tug to its base at Erie Basin in Brooklyn.

While exhaust from the engines below came right through the fidley, Bisignano said the area looked properly insulated.

After the fire, the owners, who did not respond to requests for comment, installed the required fire-detection system in the engine room, along with detectors in all accommodation spaces. They also removed wood linings from the interior spaces as suggested by the Coast Guard.

The company told the agency it spent $66,000 to repair the damage, which was confined to the fidley and the captain’s cabin, where the bunk caught fire because of two holes drilled through the deck. The tug was back in operation by early November.

Bill Bleyer

By Professional Mariner Staff