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NTSB Uncertain on Cause of Vessel Fire During Layup

Space heaters located in the engine room break area following the fire: (left) an electric heater on the workshop bench, (center) a propane heater on the deck of the workshop, and (right) a fixed electric heater located forward of the steering gear. (Source: NTSB)
Space heaters located in the engine room break area: (left) an electric heater on the workshop bench, (center) a propane heater on the deck of the workshop, and (right) a fixed electric heater forward of the steering gear. (Source: NTSB)

By The Maritime Executive 04-19-2020 11:03:13

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has released a Marine Accident Brief on the fire that occurred on a laid-up bulk carrier  in February 2019.

About 2010 local time on February 16, 2019, a fire was reported on the bulk carrier St. Clair while the vessel was laid-up for the winter at the CSX TORCO Iron Ore Terminal at the mouth of the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio. No one was on board. The fire was extinguished approximately 36 hours later by shoreside firefighters. No pollution or injuries were reported. The estimated property damage exceeded $150 million.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fire was the ignition of combustible material in the vicinity of an engine room workshop likely due to the use of portable space heaters or smoldering smoking materials, which spread to other areas of the vessel. Contributing to the extent of the fire damage was the lack of operating procedures for continuous active monitoring of the vessel while in layup status. 

Although a contractor that had been working on the vessel had identified smoke in the engine room, he assumed it was residual smoke from the hot work that occurred in the no. 6 port ballast tank and therefore did not investigate it further. The NTSB says the smoke was most likely coming from a smoldering hotspot, possibly from a burning piece of wood or trash, which eventually developed into the fire. By turning on the starboard exhaust fan in an effort to remove the smoke, and leaving it on when he departed, the movement of air within the engine room may have accelerated the growth of the smoldering hotspot into a fire. 

NTSB analysis indicated that the fire appeared to have originated just outside the workshop on the third deck on the starboard side of the engine room where the contractors regularly took their breaks. While numerous possible sources of ignition were identified in this area - including a propane heater, permanent and portable electric heaters and heat lamps, as well as cigarette smoking in the break area - the exact source could not be determined.  

The report is available here.