Ferry Fire Linked to Poor Inspection and Maintenance

Thursday, June 13, 2002
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of a fire aboard a New York City commuter ferry was the operator’s inadequate inspection and maintenance of the vessel’s electrical system. Contributing to the extent of the damage were the absence of fixed fire detection and suppression systems and the crew’s lack of knowledge of proper marine firefighting techniques. The fire occurred on the evening of November 17, 2000, as the commuter ferry Port Imperial Manhattan, with three crewmembers and eight passengers aboard, was en route from Manhattan to Weehawken, NJ. Beginning in the engine room, the fire soon burned out of control, causing the vessel to lose power and forcing passengers and crew to abandon the interior spaces. Passengers and crew were rescued by another ferry and the burning vessel was towed to a Manhattan pier where the fire was extinguished. One passenger was treated for smoke inhalation. The estimated cost to repair the vessel was $1.2 million. Investigators found that the fire likely started as a result of a loose connection in a junction box in the engine room and that an access door propped open by the crew allowed it to spread to other areas of the vessel. The Board concluded that if the ferry operator, NY Waterway, had had an effective preventive maintenance program, the loose electrical connection could have been detected before it caused a fire. The Board recommended that the Coast Guard require such programs for all systems affecting the safe operation of domestic passenger vessels. The Port Imperial Manhattan did not have fire detection and suppression systems protecting its engine room. A fire detection system would have alerted the crew to the presence of a fire while it was still small enough for the crew to extinguish it. Once the fire reached a free-burning stage, the crew faced a more serious and life-threatening situation. A fixed fire suppression unit in the engine room would have been able to extinguish the blaze before it spread to other parts of the vessel. The Board, therefore, recommended that fixed fire suppression systems be installed as mandatory equipment in engine rooms on all small passenger vessels in commuter and ferry service. The Board also found that the lack of remotely operated fire pumps compromised the crew’s ability to fight the fire. To activate the vessel’s main fire pumps, the crew would have had to enter the engine room. However, they were not able to do so because of the fire. To remedy this, the Board recommended that small passenger vessels be fitted with fire pumps capable of remote operation. The crewmembers of the Port Imperial Manhattan did not use proper firefighting techniques, the Board found, and were ineffective in controlling or extinguishing the fire. The Board attributed this to a lack of adequate training and recommended that the Coast Guard establish appropriate firefighting training requirements. The Board also concluded that the instruction and drills provided to the crew of the Port Imperial Manhattan did not adequately prepare them for directing and safely managing the passengers during the fire emergency. The passengers were largely left to fend for themselves while the crew was preoccupied with fighting the fire. While there were only eight passengers on board when the fire occurred, the ferry was certificated to carry as many as 350 passengers. Consequently, the Board recommended that the Coast Guard develop detailed guidance for crewmembers on crowd management during a shipboard fire or other emergency. As a result of this investigation, the Board made a total of 13 recommendations to the Coast Guard, the Federal Communications Commission, NY Waterway and the Passenger Vessel Association, including recommendations addressing the distribution of lifejackets on vessels, verbal safety briefings for passengers, and backup power sources for VHF radiotelephone communications systems.

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