Although ships and other vessels are surrounded by water, fire can be one of the biggest dangers for maritime workers and passengers. Recent accidents from around the world illustrate not just how dangerous ship fires are but also how common. It is all too easy for simple mistakes to lead to risky fires, injuries, lost ships, and lost lives.
U.S Ship Fires in Houston and Mississippi
A couple of incidents occurred on U.S. waterways in the last year that fortunately led to no fatalities, but which caused a lot of fire damage. In February 2018, a towing vessel called the Leland Speakes had an engine room fire while pushing boats up the Mississippi River. Nine crew members tried to put the fire out but had to abandon ship.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report recently came out and indicated that the cause of the fire was a major failure in the crankcase of the port main engine. Just two caps that connected rods to the crankshaft failed to cause the fire. The crew then couldn’t put the fire out because there was no fire-extinguishing system or redundant fire pumps on board. Damage to the boat totaled more than $4 million.
In Houston last year a cargo ship caught fire in its cargo hold while moored in port. The NTSB just released the incident report and found that the crew failed to adhere to a safety management system for the ship. They failed to take precautions before doing hot work in the cargo space. Damage to the ship amounted to $12 million.
International Fire Leads to Fatalities
The crews of the recently investigated accidents in the U.S. were fortunate to have not been harmed in the fires. Those involved in a shipboard fire overseas were not as lucky. In February of 2019 six workers lost their lives in a Durban, South Africa accident. The ship, called Tropical 1, was Mozambique-flagged. What caused the fire is unknown, but it was extensive enough to cause the ship to list and begin capsizing.
Around the same time, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship caught fire in its cargo hold while out at sea. It was making its way from China to Singapore, and although a fire on the open sea is particularly dangerous, no casualties were reported. Fortunately rescue workers from nearby Vietnam were able to get to the ship in time to fight the fire. Damage is thought to be extensive, though, on the ship that was carrying 4,500 containers.
The Dangers and Causes of Ship Fires
Workers on board ships that catch fire are put at risk of a number of injuries and death. Burns from fires are a major concern, of course, but depending on what is burning workers may also suffer respiratory damage from inhalation of fumes, smoke, and debris. Fires can also lead to fatalities when workers are forced to abandon ship or when the fire causes a vessel to sink.
Causes of ship fires are varied, but most are preventable. Failing to follow safety procedures, electrical errors or faults, fuel leaks, overheated engines, and galley accidents can all lead to fires. Failure to have a safety procedure in place or a lack of training or firefighting equipment can all make the consequences of a ship fire worse.
While the stories in shipping news indicate that fires are all too common on vessels, most incidents could and should have been prevented. Shipping companies, captains, and crew all have a responsibility to prevent fires and to deal with them safely and quickly when they start.