French maritime authorities BEAmer have released their final report into the fire on the cruise ship Le Boreal last year, which forced the evacuation of nearly 350 passengers and crew.
On the night of November 17, Le Boreal was under way near East Falkland, making 15 knots in rough seas with winds 40 to 45 knots.
At the end of the 8-12 watch, the hotel officer (a licensed second engineer) was doing his regular round of the engine room and observed that the fuel filter clogging indicator on the #4 diesel generator had gone to red, indicating that it was time to change the filter out. He turned a valve to switch the fuel supply over to the alternate filter element, then proceeded to the control room to fill out the logbook. He talked briefly with his relief, and at about 0010 hours, he returned to the generator compartment – and opened the filter housing on the #3 diesel generator instead of the #4.
As this housing was still under pressure – not like the one he had just secured and had intended to open – it sprayed fuel into the compartment, striking the hot surface of the turbocharger and starting a fire.
Filter selector index on diesel generator filter housing (courtesy BEAmer)
The hotel officer shouted to his relief in the control room to stop the engines, and the relief hit the buttons for emergency stop for all four diesel generators, cutting propulsion and automatically starting the emergency generator.
The crew's response to the fire was swift. The crew in the engine control room triggered a water mist fire suppression system over the generators; the bridge team closed the watertight doors; the fuel shutoff valves to the diesels were closed; and a firefighting team mustered.
The team initially believed that the fire had been extinguished by the fixed firefighting system, but when they reentered the compartment in an attempt to restart one of the engines, they found that the blaze had spread to electrical cables towards the upper decks of the engine room. The team battled a series of smaller fires until about 0430.
During the firefighting effort, Le Boreal drifted at about 2.5 knots towards the coast, but the crew succeeded in anchoring her on a safe bottom at about the same time the fire was extinguished.
Evacuation began shortly thereafter, and all nonessential crew and passengers were off the ship by 0515 hours by means of helicopter airlift and the ship’s two lifeboats. The patrol vessel HMS Clyde, Le Boreal’s sister ship L'Austral and the tugs Giessenstroom and Dintelstroom took part in the response effort.
While no one was harmed in the evacuation, Commander of British Forces in the South Atlantic Islands said that it was "an extremely complex and hazardous rescue operation in difficult conditions." Due to the rough sea state, it took the crew of HMS Clyde and L'Austral several hours and several unsuccessful attempts to transfer the passengers out of the lifeboats; ultimately the boats had to be towed to more sheltered waters by zodiac in order to complete the transfer safely.
Le Boreal was under tow by 1300 hours and arrived safely at Mare Harbor the next evening.
The BEAmer report found that the design of the filter housings, which allows their disassembly while pressurized, was an underlying factor; that loose lagging cover on the turbocharger was an aggravating factor; and that the hotel officer's confusion as to which filter to open was the causal factor.
BEAmer commended the crew's preparations for fire and evacuation response, which it said were made possible "thanks to the higher reactivity of a trained crew, led by stable officers who had a very good knowledge of the vessel."