Crew Actions Contributed to Severity of Towing Vessel Fire

Jacob Kyle Rusthoven
Jacob Kyle Rusthoven

Published Nov 3, 2019 1:05 AM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about a fire that broke out in the engine room of the towing vessel Jacob Kyle Rusthoven on September 12, 2018, citing crew actions as contributing to the severity of the fire.

The fire occurred while the towing vessel was pushing nine barges southbound on the Lower Mississippi River, approximately six miles north of West Helena, Arkansas. As the fire spread, three of the barges broke away from the tow, and one rolled over and lost its cargo. 

All six crewmembers abandoned the vessel onto the barges, from where they were rescued by a Good Samaritan vessel. Due to smoke inhalation, the crew was later sent to the hospital and discharged the same day. No pollution was reported. The Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, valued at an estimated $1.5 million, burned completely.

The Jacob Kyle Rusthoven was not fitted with a fixed firefighting system in the engine room, nor was it required to have one. By the time the mate reached a fire hose, the vessel had lost electrical power, and the fire pump in the main engine room where the fire began therefore was not operable. Although there was a semi-portable CO2 extinguisher inside the engine room on the upper deck, it was not of sufficient size to suppress the fire due to the fire’s sustained fuel source and size. 

Also, the crew would have had to enter a smoke-filled space for which they had no protective equipment (breathing apparatus and fire suits). Because the captain did not instruct the crew to activate the emergency fuel shutoff valves, and no one closed the main deck doors, the fire was able to spread rapidly. 

Additionally, the vessel was not fitted with a means to secure supply and exhaust ventilation to the engine room. With no means to fight the fire or maneuver the tow (due to loss of propulsion and steering), the captain’s order for the crew to abandon the drifting vessel to the barges was prudent. 

All crewmembers of the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, except the captain, were tested for alcohol and other drugs. The captain refused to be tested, defying the company’s drug and alcohol policy and a regulatory requirement for crewmembers involved in a maritime casualty. Due to the violation, he was dismissed after less than two months of employment. 

All alcohol samples taken from the remaining crewmembers were determined to be inconclusive, except the pilot’s, which tested negative. Results for other drug tests were negative, except the mate’s which reported codeine/morphine in his system.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fire was an engine lube oil leak that ignited off a hot surface near the starboard main engine turbocharger. Contributing to the severity of the fire was the lack of crew measures to activate the engine fuel supply shutoffs and secure open doors ventilating the engine room.

The report is available here.