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January 4, 2006

USCG issues report on Bow Mariner explosion

The chemical tanker BOW MARINER exploded in the Atlantic Ocean on February 28, 2004, after "a stunningly significant breach of normal safe practices for a tank ship" that "defies explanation or excuse" according to the just released U.S. Coast Guard report of its investigation into the explosion and sinking of the chemical tanker .

The investigation was conducted in cooperation with Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore, the flag state.

The report says the ship caught fire and exploded while the crew was engaged in cleaning residual Methyl Tert Butyl Ether (MTBE) from cargo tank number eight starboard. The ship sank by the bow about 45 nautical miles east of Virginia. Of the 27 crewmembers aboard, six abandoned ship and were able to make it to an inflatable life raft and were rescued by the Coast Guard. An unknown number of other crewmembers abandoned ship to the water. The Coast Guard and Good Samaritan vessels recovered three of these crewmen from the water, one deceased. The other two died before reaching a hospital.

Eighteen persons remain missing and are presumed dead, including the master, Captain Efstratios S. Kavouras, who is sharply criticized in the report.

The vessel's cargo of ethyl alcohol (3,188,711 gallons) was released, along with the vessel's heavy fuel oil (192,904 gallons), diesel fuel (48,266 gallons) and slops (quantity unknown).

The cause of the casualty was the ignition of a fuel/air mixture, either on deck or in the cargo tanks, that was within its flammable limits. The ignition source could not be precisely determined.

Contributing to this casualty, says the report, was the failure of the operator, Ceres Hellenic Enterprises, Ltd., and the senior officers of the BOW MARINER, to properly implement the company and vessel Safety, Quality and Environmental Protection Management System (SQEMS).

The report says the cargo tanks were not inerted during the discharge of MTBE in New York, as required by the SQEMS. The tanks were not required to be inerted by U.S. law or international conventions because the BOW MARINER was constructed before July 1,1986. If the tanks had remained closed, the explosion would not have occurred.

Captain Kavouras' order to open the 22 cargo tanks that had previously held MTBE was "a stunningly significant breach of normal safe practices for a tank ship and defies explanation or excuse," says the report. "Opening the tanks exposed the crew to toxic fumes, permitted flammable vapors that were heavier than air to accumulate on deck, and diluted the rich atmosphere in the cargo tanks with oxygen, bringing them into the flammable range."

The report says the failure of Captain Kavouras to properly organize a response to the explosions contributed to the high loss of life. "He abandoned ship without sending a distress signal, without attempting to contact a nearby ship, without conducting a proper muster or search for injured crewmen, and without attempting to launch primary lifesaving appliances."

Captain Kavouras and Chief Engineer Legantis-Eley A. Athanasiou (who is also missing and presumed dead) abandoned ship within 10 minutes of the first explosion, leaving behind other crewmembers they knew to be alive. Their premature action exposed the crewmen who entered the water with them to the cold water far earlier than necessary, and contributed to the high loss of life.

The report says a "lack of immersion suits contributed to the high loss of life. There was sufficient time for the survivors of the explosion, who were relatively uninjured, to don an immersion suit before entering the water. If the survivors had immersion suits the probability of rescue by one of the many responding vessels or aircraft, several of which were on scene in less than two hours, was very high."

"The failure of Captain Kavouras to conduct regular and effective fire and boat drills contributed to the high loss of life," says the report. "It is widely accepted that people react in emergencies precisely as they have trained. In this casualty, the officer on watch failed to sound the general alarm, failed to make an announcement and failed to send a distress signal. Several crewmen panicked and no one reported to their muster stations with the equipment they were assigned to bring. Those who gathered aft were disorganized, did not know what to do and were in desperate need of leadership that Captain Kavouras and Chief Engineer Athanasiou did not provide."