El Faro: Boiler Fireboxes In "Very Bad Shape"
At Thursday's Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the loss of the El Faro, Luke Laasko, a superintendent for Walashek Industrial & Marine, gave testimony regarding his survey of her starboard side boiler.
The El Faro's captain reported a loss of propulsion in his final communications, and the panel has questioned TOTE officials and engineers at length regarding the state of her steam power plant.
The board asked Mr. Laasko about the condition of both her boilers, and whether the maintenance scheduled for them was sufficient in its scope and timeliness.
Mr. Laasko told the board that he holds no certifications, but has 22 years of experience in the field. Walashek Industrial, his employer, is the “largest provider of services to marine propulsion boilers in the United States,” with service facilities in Seattle, Portland, Norfolk, Mobile, San Diego and Charleston.
He was asked to read selections of his El Faro survey report into the record, reproduced from his testimony below.
The forward and rear firestops are starting to fall apart, toward the top of each stop, and holes are starting to show. The left stop, when facing the screen tubes, has pushed the first screen tube away from the wall, so that it touches the next screen tube.
The front wall on starboard boiler is in very bad shape. The brick wall in spots has pushed itself against the tubes and in turn pushes the tubes out causing them to bow in towards the firebox. Other parts of the wall have begun to deteriorate and there is now a three to four inch gap between the wall and the tubes. As the tubes are pushed out, tubes around the burner throats have begun to show signs of flame impediment.
After discussions with the chief, first assistant, and second assistant, it can be assumed that the port boiler firebox is in the same if not worse condition than the starboard boiler. All three have said that the front wall brick and tubes are in very bad shape.
It is highly recommended that the front wall tubes as well as brickwork, including burner throats, be renewed on both boilers. The brick is moving due to soot buildup behind them and as a result can cause casing fires as well as damage to tubes to the point of failure. The deterioration of the brick can also cause inner casings to fail from lack of heat resistant brick and insulation in front of it.
In follow-up questioning, TOTE's representative at the hearing asked Laasko, "the negative things that were cited by the Coast Guard . . . those are efficiency items, aren't they?”
Laasko responded affirmatively, that these were efficiency items, not safety items. Separately he noted that while there was "definitely some work that needed to be done,” he “didn't feel unsafe around those boilers,” and if there had been a safety concern he would have notified the vessel's engineers.
The survey was completed as part of a pre-shipyard assessment for a yard period coming up in November. Walashek Industrial's repair estimate, prepared for TOTE after the survey, included only “burner throats on both boilers, remove slag from firebox decks, clear gas passes,” leaving out parts of the recommended firebox work from Laasko's survey, plus his additional recommendation for retubing on the starboard economizer.
The board produced an email between chief engineer James Robinson and TOTE executive Tim Neeson from July 2015 regarding the deteriorating condition of her boilers, and asked Laasko whether he thought it prudent to leave the maintenance unaddressed between July and November (or longer, if the full extent of work was not scheduled for November’s shipyard). He told the board that this was not his call, and that he “would recommend that it be fixed right away . . . but it's really up to the ship's owner at that point.”
“It could lapse a couple of months, it wouldn't be a big deal,” he added.
He was not involved in any discussions with shoreside TOTE officials, and allowed that another firm besides Walashek Industrial could have been chosen to quote the remaining parts of his recommended scope of work. The repairs were to be done in Portland or Seattle, and Walashek has competitors in both markets.
Imagery of El Faro’s engine room and steam system diagram courtesy USCG MBI (undated photos)