Story from Vern's Blog follower, Generates a Navy Oiler story.


I review shipboard incidents every day. It’s what I write about. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of material out there. The other day, something came across my desk. At first, I thought it someone’s idea of a joke. “Artful,” I said to myself, “There is no way that this really happened.” It was then I came to the realization that this paper was no joke . . . this actually happened . . . and , well I’ll just share this little tidbit with you and you can blog for yourself. Of course, I left out the names to protect the guilty. I’m just going to reflect on the high points of the story.

Our story starts on a cruise ship with the third engineer officer on watch. He was diligently writing in his logbook in the ECR. He glanced up at the window to the engineroom and noticed flames coming from between two of the main diesel engines. He followed proper procedure and informed the bridge to take control of the plant. The second officer, on the bridge, immediately complied with the request. The third engineer stopped the engines.

The third engineer then entered the engineroom alone, with a damp cloth over his face. No, I’m not kidding. He saw the flames earlier, but had this wild craving to disregard his personal safety and he wanted to get to know this fire better. He then found his two assistants, and a motorman, and a wiper (The ship instructions state that you have to tell everyone personally). Anyway, they all evacuated the engineroom together. They then woke the chief engineer (Mind you, obviously no word for a fire has been passed. I know this is a cruise ship, but come on.).

We’re going to skip ahead to some more good stuff. They finally passed “Code Bravo,” the super secret password for a bravo fire (Get it? “Code Bravo?”). The crew mustered in the safety room. The air conditioning engineer was then ordered to close all ventilation to the engineroom. Ordered? When there’s a bravo fire in a main space, should mechanical and electrical isolation be part of the scheme of things? I spent 24 years in the navy and on a side-bar, I must say that I’m very impressed they have a special engineer for “air conditioning.” I wonder if there’s a license associated with that?

Anyway, at the same time, a fire entry team is entering the space. Whether or not mechanical or electrical isolation has been set wasn’t made clear, nor was it clear if they had permission or a team leader. All I know is that this hose team is only made up of only two people wearing breathing apparatus (BA). Now, check this out. After a few minutes, they found it very hot and withdrew. Really . . . Guess what? Did you think that bravo fires are only tepid? I’ve fought too many fires in my day, and I’ve yet to come across a fire that’s comfortable. Maybe some proper firefighting ensembles would have helped. Maybe they were wearing those really cool shorts and tee-shirts that Gopher used to wear on The Love Boat. I digress.

We’re going to skip ahead about eleven minutes later and get to some more good stuff. Even though there’s still no mention of mechanical and electrical isolation being set, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. They do have fire boundaries set (Yey!). The chief engineer recommends that the fixed CO2 system be utilized. Unfortunately, the person designated to light this system off can’t be found (Hmmm. Maybe he’s on the Lido Deck.). Three minutes later, the safety officer and the chief electrician make their way to the CO2 compartment. Note: The ship was equipped with a Minimax low fog spray system. This system sprays an atomized mist of water into the space. This flashes to steam and smothers the fire. It works so great that the navy is considering replacing all of their halon fixed systems with this (You remember what halon is? It’s that stuff that kills the ozone layer and makes everyone communists.)

They open the hatch, but the chief electrician is the only one who can enter. Why? Because the safety officer is “encumbered” by his BA. At seventeen minutes into the fire, the safety officer confirmed that they were ready to release CO2 into the affected space. However, the VHF radio communications between the chief electrician and the chief engineer were poor, so the electrician was unable to hear any clear instructions. Shouldn’t you always have a plan for backup communications? You had a safety officer outside the space. Was there a phone nearby? Could he relay a message? Obviously not. The chief electrician couldn’t hear any subsequent instructions from the chief engineer, so the chief engineer went all the way to the CO2 room (the clock is ticking.) and ordered the release of CO2 into the engineroom and the boiler room.

Much to my surprise, the chief electrician didn’t know how to properly activate the installed CO2 flooding system. Of course he couldn’t tell anyone this because his radio didn’t work, but God love him, he made the attempt and reported that CO2 had been released into the engineroom and the boiler room . . . well, at least he thought it had been released. In fact, it wasn’t.

Ok, here’s where it gets even better. After a few minutes, the staff captain briefly entered the engineroom (I’m not kidding.), with a damp cloth over his face. What’s with this damp-cloth-thing? Is there a budget crisis on this ship where they’re in short supply of BA’s? I also thought that once CO2 is released into a main space that doesn’t have AFFF bilge sprinkling, you have to wait 24 hours prior to entry. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Also, if you really think it’s necessary to enter a space where the fire hasn’t been deemed out, wouldn’t it be a good idea to bring a hose team with you instead of entering the space alone?

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it does. About 10 minutes after the CO2 dump, the chief engineer enters the space (Am I the only one who’s heard of this 24 hour thing?). At least he’s wearing a BA, but he’s also alone. Why is he even in there? Well, he wants to perform an atmospheric test in the space. It’s not bad enough that a trained hose team has yet to enter the space and declare the fire out, the chief engineer has an unusual method of atmospheric testing: He takes off his BA and sniffs! No, I am not making this up. He sniffs (“OK guys, I’m not dead. Come on in!”). He then orders ventilation opened up to the space where the fire still hasn’t been declared out by a hose team (Can you say: “Reflash” That’s a big word.). Almost two hours later, two fire teams with thermal imaging cameras (flown on board) finally check out the space and declare the fire officially out ( . . . though it’s not only merely dead, it’s really most sincerely dead!).

To add to everything, two weeks previously, the safety officer (who couldn’t fit down the hatch) scheduled hectic training due to firefighting deficiencies noted from a previous PSC inspection. Nine days later, the MCA found them “satisfactory.”

On a final note, the ship was investigated. An investigator and the chief engineer were in the CO2 compartment. The inspector asked the chief engineer to explain the system because it appeared to not have been released. With permission from the chief engineer; the inspector flips the cylinder release, and guess what? Yup, he dumps CO2 into the engineroom. But that’s not all: “What else have we got for our contestant, Johnny?” “Well Artful, we’ve got an engineroom full of personnel that have to be evacuated before they suffocate and die!”

Ok, maybe I was a little hard on these guys, but guess what? Everybody lived. Yeah, I was surprised too. I could have been a lot worse. Maybe, in a few years, these guys will be sitting around the bar, with MaryAnn and Ginger, laughing and joking about it. Heck, we all make mistakes. Are there lessons learned? You betcha! If your title has the word “chief” in it, you should make it your business to know everything concerning damage control. Damage control training is ongoing. If you think you know it all, you don’t. Know your systems. Know your equipment. Know your procedures. Know your people. And, most importantly: Cross train everyone in everything.

Oh, on a final-final note: the reason the fire started was because some rocket scientist modified a spray guard on a fuel line for the diesel . . . ooops!

So, that’s my bedtime story kids. Keep those emails coming. I love to hear about your incidents. Heck, maybe one day I’ll tell you kiddies how, when I was a young pup, put a naval warship dead in the water by lighting farts in the engineroom. Blog this article and tell me what you think by commenting below. I’m the Artful Blogger. That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it!

Yep, sounds quite believable to me.

I really enjoyed my post-Navy time sailing with MSC, where MOST of the folks I worked with knew their jobs pretty well and acted in a professional manner.  As a result of this professional competence, things ran really well on a day-to-day basis.  The boilers boiled the engines ran the winches winched and we unrepped like crazy.

But. . . when there was an emergency or when the unexpected happened the lack of training and teamwork in dealing with the unusual became really obvious.  In almost every MSC ship I sailed on I witnessed some piss poor performance in dealing with emergencies.  There was no plan, no practice and communication was always a problem - with the greatly reduced manning levels on MSC ships you did not have the luxury of sending the "messenger of the watch" or some other extra person to go find someone or relay a message.

Probably the worst instance I am aware of happened on the USNS Taluga around 1980.  (Before I got there).  Taluga was the "duty oiler" in San Diego.  She sailed from the foot of Broadway every Monday morning, played with the fleet all week of the SOCAL coast and then went back to the pier every Friday evening.

Right across the street from this pier at the foot of Broadway was "Bernie's", a sailor bar that was taken straight from the legendary waterfront movies of the 1940's and '50's.  What a dive, and this was where you could find a large percentage of Taluga's crew from 1800 Friday night until 0600 Monday morning. 

The first few hours underway on Monday were always exciting, as those that weren't actually falling down drunk were pretty well hung over and not very alert.

In the Taluga's fire room were the old style burners - straight oil atomization.  No wide-range steam assist burners as was the fashion on more modern boilers.  These burners had a very narrow "range" of firing rate, and it was a busy time during maneuvering for the fireman and third assistant engineer, as many changes to larger or smaller burner tips were necessary as bells were answered.  These burners had two valves that needed to be turned off manually before the burner was removed, and then turned back on manually after a different burner was inserted and dogged down in it's holder.  There were no safety interlocks or check valves.  Open a valve and oil comes out under great pressure, whether a burner is in place or not.

Well.. . you can guess what happened.  The fireman, drunk out of his gourd, pulled a burner while the valves were still open, oil sprayed all over the fire room, the fireman and the third assistant (a young female King's Point grad on her first ship).  A conflagration ensued, they both died and the fire raged for hours.   It could have been put out in seconds by simply tripping off the electric fuel oil service pump at the main switchboard located in the engine room (a totally separate space).  But instead the gallant crew wanted to keep the lights on and steam up so as not to inhibit the firefighting efforts.  No one had ever practiced this, talked about or planned for such an eventuality - even though errors in handling burners had happened several times in the past , but miraculously without a fire!

By the time the fire was out the damage ran into the millions, Taluga required a lengthly overhaul (It was nip and tuck on the decision to simply scrap her, but they kept her around for another 4 years).  By the time that the dying fireman was helo-evacked off the ship and to Balboa (some 5 hours after sailing) his blood alcohol level was still way above .2 !

Geee.. . who coulda' seen this coming?

Best wishes, Lary Harris