Fire at sea: Wake-up call averts a mariner’s nightmare

657318 300Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Barry Bena

On the evening of July 27, 2015, while much of the public attention was focused on thousands of firefighters battling wildfires in the western United States, the crew of a 738-foot Maltese bulk freighter fought a fire in the engine room of their ship some 120 miles off the coast of California. When one of the generators onboard the motor vessel Maribella caught fire, an automatic mist system activated, and the ship’s crew quickly donned their firefighting gear and extinguished the blaze.

Fire at sea is widely regarded as among the most dangerous maritime hazards. Just as with a wildfire on land, a small blaze can spread quickly. Aboard a ship, however, if a fire gets out of control, there’s nowhere to run and help may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The fire onboard Maribella didn’t grab any headlines. It turned out to be a fairly uneventful industrial accident that did not grow into a disaster because the ship’s safety systems and the crew’s firefighting procedures worked. But the fate of the ship might have been much different if it weren’t for the diligence and tenacity of U.S. Coast Guard inspectors.

Cargo ships from around the world transport everything from agricultural products to smart phones, from cars to sneakers, in and out of California ports. The safe, clean operation of these ships is essential to our nation’s economy and environment.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Port State Control program – not a household name among such Coast Guard missions as drug interdiction and search and rescue – ensures foreign vessels are examined thoroughly for safety and environmental compliance. Coast Guard marine safety experts who conduct PSC examinations serve as sentinels and stewards to make sure shippers can transport goods without risking the lives of their crews or damaging the environment in the process.

Coast Guard PSC teams conduct more than 9,000 vessel examinations nationally each year. Most ships pass the examinations, or are found to have minor discrepancies that are easily fixed. This wasn’t the case when a PSC team from Coast Guard Sector San Francisco went aboard the Maribella on July 23.

Ensign Robert Norcott, Chief Warrant Officer Jason Yates, Petty Officer 2nd Class Louis Silveria, Petty Officer 3rd Class Para Upchurch, and Mr. Charles Curtian, a civilian examiner employed by the Coast Guard, found numerous unsafe conditions onboard the ship. Crucial problems were found such as cracks in the fiberglass hull of the vessel’s lifeboat, which is essential for the crew’s safe evacuation from the vessel should a major catastrophe ensue onboard.

Another key shortcoming: the crew’s inability to fight a fire.

“Their training was lacking, and to our evaluation, they would not have been able to effectively fight a fire,” said Curtian. “They actually failed the (fire) drill twice.”

During PSC examinations a foreign vessel and its crew members are put to the test to ensure conditions, equipment and competencies are compliant with international conventions, such as Safety of Life at Sea, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships and Standards of Training and Certification for Watchkeepers.

Due to the severity of the vessel’s deficiencies, coupled with the crew member’s substandard firefighting capabilities, the PSC team had no choice but to detain the vessel until these deficiencies were rectified. Detaining a vessel requires the crew to address all concerns before they are allowed to depart the port and is communicated to the international community on the severity of the conditions found onboard.

During the Maribella’s detention the ship addressed all major deficiencies, and the crew trained extensively in firefighting procedures and techniques. The Coast Guard team returned to the vessel and found the crew’s firefighting abilities to be much improved, largely due to a new captain who had joined the vessel.

“When we came back to re-examine the vessel, the attentiveness of the new captain and of the crew was apparent, and very encouraging,” said Silveria. “The new master had the chance to sit down with the ship superintendents and review the vessel’s Safety Management System and Safety of Life at Sea Conventions training manual. The master also had ample time to train the crew by conducting fire drills in accordance with the aforementioned manuals and procedures prior to our arrival.”

On July 26, the Maribella was cleared to leave San Francisco with its cargo of petroleum coke. The next day the engine room fire broke out. Silveria believes training the ship’s crew received to be a positive factor for how they handled the situation.

“I think the detention was a ‘wake-up call’ for the crew, reminding them of the importance of conducting every drill as if it were a real emergency,” he said.

As a result of the fire the vessel lost propulsion and was drifting for hours. Fire damage was limited to one generator. The main engines and the ship’s propulsion systems were started utilizing two other generators on board, and the vessel proceeded to Long Beach without further incident.

If not for the Sector San Francisco PSC team’s thorough examination and corrective actions by the ship’s captain and crew, the fire onboard Maribella may have escalated into a maritime disaster. But the lives of the crew were not significantly threatened, and the threat of environmental damage from spilling of the ship’s fuel or cargo was averted.

“Multiple examinations such as this one happen daily, and the example of the Maribella is a testament to the importance of the Coast Guard Port State Control Program,” said Lt. Andres Ayure, PSC Branch Chief for Sector San Francisco. “This program continually ensures the safety and security of foreign vessels, their crew, our ports, and the navigable waters of our country.”

Cmdr. Jennifer Stockwell, Lt. Cmdr. Nicolette Vaughan, Lt. Andres Ayure, and Ensign Rob Norcott contributed to this story.

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