NTSB determines cause of $8.22 million containership fire

Written by Nick Blenkey
NTSB reports on engine room fire

NTSB seal

An incorrectly installed section of main engine fuel oil return tubing led to an engine room fire aboard a containership off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the National Transportation Safety Board says,

The ship involved was the 984-foot long, 7,471 TEU, U.S.-flagged President Eisenhower, managed by APL Maritime. On April 28, 2021, it was transiting through the Santa Barbara Channel with a crew of 22, when at about 1.45 a.m. local time, a crewmember on watch noticed smoke coming from an open engine room hatch.

Two crewmembers donned firefighting outfits and attempted to use portable fire extinguishers to quell the fire. Realizing the fire was “too much,” the captain decided to release carbon dioxide into the engine room.

The day before the vessel’s departure, says the NTSB, the second engineer installed a new section of steel fuel oil return tubing for the main engine. A post fire examination showed that a compression fitting on the end of the newly installed section of fuel return tubing had disconnected, causing the ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel oil the engine was burning to spray. CCTV footage from the vessel showed diesel oil spray about 30 minutes before the fire started. Within one minute after the fire started, cardboard and wooden boxes of spare parts, which were stored one deck above the main engine and next to the auxiliary boiler, caught on fire.

Investigators found that an unshielded and uninsulated exhaust valve compensator flange acted as an ignition source for the spraying diesel fuel. An examination of the disconnected fuel oil return tubing and failed compression fitting revealed that the compression fitting’s sealing ferrule was not sufficiently swaged to the steel tubing.

As a result of the engine ro fire, the vessel lost propulsion and drifted for several hours before being towed to the Port of Los Angeles. No pollution or injuries were reported. Damage to the vessel totaled an estimated $8.22 million.

PROBABLE CAUSE

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the engine room fire aboard the containership President Eisenhower was a crewmember insufficiently swaging a compression fitting ferrule during the installation of fuel oil return tubing for a main engine’s cylinder, allowing an end of the tubing to disconnect and spray fuel oil onto a nearby unshielded and uninsulated cylinder exhaust component.

LESSONS LEARNED

​​Rapid oil leak detection

Rapid oil leak-detection systems are a valuable tool that can be used to prevent fire in machinery spaces. Video analytic technology is designed to use standard CCTV video to detect fuel mist and spray in real time and alert the crew before any ignition and fire. This technology is supported by class societies as an acceptable method for identifying leaks and can be integrated with existing CCTV systems. Had this technology been in use aboard the President Eisenhower, the spraying fuel oil may have been detected well before the fire developed.

Containing engine room fires

The crew of the President Eisenhower effectively contained the spread of a main engine room fire by removing fuel and oxygen sources, cooling boundaries, and communicating effectively. These efforts show the importance of realistic scenario-based training, including engine room emergencies, which involve shutting down machinery, fuel oil, lube oil, and ventilation systems, as well as boundary monitoring, to quickly contain and suppress engine room fires, which can spread to other spaces and/or cause a loss of propulsion and electrical power.

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