NTSB Releases Report On October 2019 Engineroom Fire

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its Marine Accident Report detailing the October 8, 2019, engineroom fire aboard the mv. Susan Lynn near Lafitte, La., along the Barataria Waterway.

On the morning of the fire, the mv. Susan Lynn was moored at Tom’s Marine & Salvage, when a fire started in the engineroom around 6 a.m. No injuries or pollution resulted from the fire, which caused more than $1.3 million in damages to the vessel.

In September 2018, H&K Marine Services LLC purchased the  Susan Lynn, which was built in 1963 at Marine Welding & Repair Works and originally named Rock Bluff. According to NTSB, the vessel had been towing barges on the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) for Four Rivers Towing since October 2018. The vessel arrived at Tom’s Marine & Salvage on August 2, 2019, for a port propeller replacement job. According to NTSB, H&K Marine Services planned to return the vessel to service following a Coast Guard inspection at the shipyard.

“However, Coast Guard inspectors prohibited the vessel from operating because, during their visit to inspect the new propeller on August 7, they observed that the condition of the vessel’s hull did not meet the standards of Subchapter M towing vessel inspection regulations,” NTSB said in the report. “Although the vessel did not yet carry a certificate of inspection (COI), during the phase-in period for obtaining a COI, all towing vessels were required to meet the Subchapter M requirements.”

With the Susan Lynn out of service pending repairs and a follow-up Coast Guard inspection, “the operator reduced the towboat’s crew to an engineer living on board to serve as a watchman,” the NTSB report said.

On October 7, the engineer assigned to the Susan Lynn spent the day working on another vessel docked at the shipyard, then went ashore for the evening. 

“The engineer returned to the Susan Lynn around midnight and went to bed in his room on the main deck, above the forward portion of the lower engineroom where the generators were located,” the report stated. “He said that the hinged steel interior centerline upper engineroom doors were open when he went to sleep.”

According to the engineer, the Susan Lynn was not hooked up to shore power, instead operating on power generated by the port generator. The starboard generator was not in service.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, the engineer awoke to a beeping fire alarm.

“He got out of bed, observed there was no power, and decided to check the engineroom,” the report stated. “He peered through the open interior forward centerline door to the upper engineroom, observed smoke, and left to grab carbon dioxide and dry chemical fire extinguishers.”

Upon returning to the engineroom, the engineer discharged the extinguishers toward the generators, noting that, while he saw no flames, “There was nothing there but black smoke … it was hot.” In the process, the engineer was not able to secure the “exhaust trunk ventilation to the engineroom,” nor did he close any of the fuel shutoff valves. The engineer noted that he did not think to use another fire extinguisher located near the after starboard-side engineroom door.

Unable to secure the engineroom, the engineer left the vessel and called 911 and the vessel operator.

“The Lafitte Barataria Crown Point Volunteer Fire Department arrived on scene at 0628 and fought the fire with water hoses and foam,” NTSB said in its report. “The fire was declared out at 1315.”

Post-fire inspections pointed to a crankcase explosion at the port generator as a possible cause of the fire, though no inspector identified the originating heat source. NTSB noted that the fire aboard the Susan Lynn was similar to previous fires the agency had investigated aboard two towboats and an offshore supply vessel (OSV).

“The previous mechanical engine failures on these three vessels led to the ejection of lube oil mist, which likely ignited on the two towboats, resulting in engineroom fires,” NTSB said in the report, noting that the engine failure aboard the OSV did not cause a fire.

The generators aboard the Susan Lynn had been installed three years prior to the fire, with the generators used alternately from week to week. Four Rivers Towing estimates total operating hours of 11,500. When the Susan Lynn was laid up at the shipyard, only the port generator was used, with the engineer reportedly checking the generator every two hours, except during sleeping hours.

Following its investigation, NTSB concluded “the probable cause of the fire on board the Susan Lynn was a catastrophic engine failure resulting in an oil reservoir breach and an ensuing fire initiated by ejected lube oil igniting off a hot surface. Contributing to the extent of the fire were the open engineroom doors and the unsecured fuel shutoff valves.”