For want of a watchman the ship was lost

What happened?

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has published Marine Safety Alert 07-19 entitled ‘For want of a watchman the ship was lost’.  It tells the story of a Great Lakes bulk carrier laid up for the winter suffering a catastrophic fire that caused major cosmetic, machinery, and structural damage.  The vessel was unmanned and vacant at the time the fire was discovered.  There were no injuries.

The fire appeared to have originated in the machine shop on the gangway deck, above the lower main engine room space.  Numerous possible sources of ignition were identified; propane heaters, electric heaters, and heat lamps were being used in the machinery space.

Fighting the fire was hampered by cold weather causing frozen water hydrants.  As a result, the fire burned for over 35 hours within the upper engine room spaces, moving up into the entire superstructure.  While the fire was being fought, the electrical shore power supply to the vessel failed.  Within the machinery space, a number of valves had been opened for maintenance and to drain various systems.  During the fire and due to the power loss, the system used to prevent freezing around the machinery space area of the hull failed.  As a result, and because of the several days of freezing weather, various piping systems failed and allowed water to flood the machinery space.  The flooding continued until divers were able to secure the flow from the sea chest.

What actions were taken?

As a result of this fire, the USCG strongly recommends that vessel owners and operators, particularly of vessels in layup, or vessels using shore power and or on which work is being performed:

  • Ensure that continuous fire, safety, and security watches are maintained and that the watchmen are provided specific written instructions regarding their duties in the event of a fire or other emergency situation;
  • Ensure that persons with vessel engineering experience and knowledge of engine room systems are used during lay-up preparations to prevent unintended circumstances – such as, in this case, the flooding of the machinery space.

The full marine safety alert can be found here.