A Coast Guard patrol boat maintains a security zone as the New York City fireboat McKean pours cooling water on Bouchard B35 after a nearby barge caught fire while unloading gasoline. Tug Francis E. Roehrig helped to move B35 out of danger. B35 was carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline.
Two tankermen on the barge, John Kyne, 52, of Huntsville, Ala., and Ford Ebanks, 24, of North Miami, Fla., were killed in the blast.
Frank Scandariato of Middleton, N.J., an ExxonMobil dock hand who was near the explosion and fire, received second- and third-degree burns over 15 percent of his body, but survived. The explosion shook nearby buildings and created dense, black smoke that spread over New York City. Many area residents initially feared it was a terrorist attack.
Although the U.S. Coast Guard is not saying what may have sparked the explosion, B125’s starboard pump was repaired the day before the incident. Bouchard is based in Hicksville, N.Y.
The explosion happened shortly after 1000 while 100,000 barrels of unleaded gasoline were being unloaded from the 340-foot barge, which was berthed at ExxonMobil’s Port Mobil facility on Staten Island, located on the Arthur Kill near the Outerbridge Crossing that links the island to New Jersey. The barge B125 had a capacity of 118,000 barrels.
There are 39 tanks and eight berths at the facility, which can hold up to 2.5 million barrels of gasoline, low-sulfur diesel and jet fuel. Less than 500,000 gallons of product were in storage at the time of the incident, according to ExxonMobil.
About half of the barge’s cargo had been unloaded when the explosion occurred. John Downey, who was on the Bouchard barge B15 at the Motiva facility on the other side of the Arthur Kill, said he saw a flash of light in the air between B125 and another Bouchard barge, B35 (which was docked in a berth next to B125, according to the Coast Guard). Before seeing the flash, he heard a loud click. Downey testified at hearings on the incident the Coast Guard held in March.
The explosion destroyed all 12 tanks in B125, according to Lt. Joseph Fischetti, with Coast Guard Activities New York. Fischetti reported that divers who surveyed the wreckage the day after said the blast created a tunneling effect in the barge. “The upper deck kind of folded over,” he said.
The Coast Guard dispatched six vessels, including the cutters Hawser and Hammerhead, and two helicopters to the scene. The Coast Guard closed down Arthur Kill, which has average traffic of 50 vessels daily, until 1845 that day. The fire was not extinguished until 0200 on Feb. 23.
Two tugs, Bouchard’s Evening Mist, and Francis E. Roehrig, owned by Roehrig Maritime of Glen Cove, N.Y., came in and removed B35, which was carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline. B35 was also on fire, but firefighters on shore put out the blaze.
Kent Dresser, an able seaman, was on the tugboat Zachery Reinauer, owned by Reinauer Transportation Co., which was dispatched to Port Mobil to pick up another barge about a quarter-mile away from the fire. He said the fire was burning on the dock and that there were pieces of burning debris in the water.
When his tug arrived at the barge, he and his fellow crewmembers got out, unhooked a hose from the dock and tied up to the barge. Then his captain said, “I want everyone inside, now.”
“We made up to it, did a quick turnaround and got out as fast as we could,” Dresser said. “I’m lucky that I work with a seasoned crew.”
Dresser was most concerned about the two tugs that pulled B35 away from the fire. When the call came in for those tugs, he thought, “I hope they get out of there. That took a lot of courage.”
Cmdr. Patrick Little, based in the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Providence, is conducting the investigation into the cause of the explosion. Little heard testimony from more than 20 people during four days of hearings held in early March.
Little said he’s looking at the entire terminal to determine the cause of the incident. “There is no such thing as just one thing going wrong,” he said. “Identifying the actual sparking mechanism is one small piece of the investigation.” Little said it will take until the end of April to track down all the debris from B125, which was still in the water as of March 27. Investigators are assembling the pieces at a salvage yard in Staten Island.
During testimony at the Coast Guard hearings, witnesses said that there had been problems with all three pumps on B125. Theofannis Tsakas, the port engineer for Bouchard Transportation, testified that he replaced the gasket between the head and the exhaust manifold on the starboard pump’s diesel engine on Feb. 20, according to the Coast Guard. The repair was finished before cargo was unloaded, and tested successfully, he said. Tsakas also checked the forward pump on Feb. 19 and found that its angle drive was not working and required repair. That pump was apparently not in use on the day of the accident.
A broken clutch in the starboard pump engine was also repaired before the explosion, according to testimony by William Wickham, a Bouchard captain who was in charge of B125 two days before the blast. Wickham also said that the port pump engine had been leaking oil since December. A Bouchard mechanic testified that he checked the port engine and found that it was dirty but not leaking oil. Despite these concerns, Wickham testified that the port and starboard pumps could safely unload fuel.
In the hearings, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Fisher, chief of the inspection department at Coast Guard Activities New York, testified that faulty wiring and an oil leak in the main generator were found on B125 during an April 2000 inspection. The problems were fixed right away, Fisher testified.
Harry Fleureton, a former tanker captain who teaches the tanker class at the State University of New York Maritime College, said static electric discharges are dangerous during loading, because the fuel displaces air from the tank in the form of flammable vapors, which are on deck.
Fleureton said the dangers are different when unloading. “When you are discharging, you’re pulling air in and mixing it with the product’s vapor, and that creates a flammable atmosphere in the tank,” he said.
Although he was not commenting on the Port Mobil fire, Fleureton said that one hazardous area during discharge is the pump. “If the pump has significant mechanical problems or a worn bearing or things of that nature, that’s also a problem,” he said. “It generates heat, and it can make sparks, depending on how significant it is.”
On March 5 another fire occurred on the Bouchard vacuum vessel Evening Breeze, when it was emptying the tanks of a nearby barge near Brooklyn.
A buildup of static electricity in a leaky hose triggered the fire. The vessel was carrying 28,000 gallons of gasoline at the time. Nobody was injured.