NTSB Identifies Probable Cause Of Fire Aboard Steamboat Natchez

For nearly 50 years, the Steamboat Natchez has been one of the most recognizable and iconic vessels plying the waters in New Orleans’ busy harbor. The 236-foot-long, steam-powered sternwheeler was built in 1975 by Bergeron Machine Shop in Braithwaite, La. The late New Orleans maritime legend Bill Bergeron founded the shipyard specifically for building the Natchez.

The New Orleans Steamboat Company (NOSC), which owns and operates the Natchez, along with the riverboat City of New Orleans, took the Natchez out of service in January 2021 for a complete overhaul, with plans to return the vessel to service in 2023. The Natchez was moved to a wharf on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, known locally as the Industrial Canal, where its passenger spaces were to be renovated, its boilers refurbished and one of its two generators replaced.

A major setback, however, occurred May 3, 2022, when a fire broke out at about 7:45 p.m. aboard the Natchez. Local firefighters responded and arrived on scene by about 8:25 p.m. They extinguished the fire by about 9:40 p.m. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which conducted an investigation into the fire, estimated the fire caused $1.5 million in damage to the Natchez. According to the NTSB, most of the fire damage was restricted to the generator space, with some heat damage to the engineroom and smoke damage to the external passenger spaces.

The NTSB recently released its marine investigation report on the incident, with a probable cause identified as “the failure of contractor and vessel personnel to identify and then either remove or adequately protect combustible material near hot work.”

The NTSB connected the fire to the work to replace the generator. By May 3, 2023, contractors had already installed the new starboard generator, and work that day included removing the generator’s electrical panel. “Following removal, the plan was to fabricate a new generator electrical panel in its place with new electrical breakers and controls,” the NTSB report stated. “Contractors would also install new fuel, lube oil and water lines for the new diesel generator.”

On the day of the incident, workers with Bluewater Electric finished removing the electrical panel by about 8:30 a.m. Then, a project superintendent with Dixie Marine, the contractor handling hot work aboard the vessel, checked the area for flammable vapors, looked for oil on deck and ensured no combustible materials were adjacent to the hot work area.

“Once the space was determined safe for hot work, the employees used an acetylene torch to cut the panel’s metal framing so it could be removed,” the report stated. “As one worker was cutting with the acetylene torch, the other served as the fire watch and had a bucket of water, charged garden hose and fire extinguisher at the ready in case a fire started.” Two Natchez crew members also used a piece of sheet metal to shield the port-side generator from sparks.

Work wrapped up around 3:45 p.m., after which workers cleaned up the area, gathered tools and monitored the space while tools cooled down.

“The hot work contractor employees started to depart the vessel at 1630, with the project supervisor departing at 1650,” the NTSB report stated. “They told investigators that they did not note any unusual concentration of smoke within the generator space before their departure.”

Simultaneous with the hot work, another contractor, Southern Diesel, was installing fuel, lube oil and water lines for the new generator on the starboard side of the generator room. That work continued into the evening hours. A deckhand for the Natchez was going on his rounds at about 5:45 p.m., when he noted the diesel technician at work. “He did not observe any smoke or other issues,” the report stated. The diesel technician then wrapped up his work about 6:30 p.m. and left the vessel.

“The technician told investigators that although he noted the smell associated with hot work following the completion of the panel frame removal, he did not smell or see any other indication of smoke before leaving the generator space,” the report stated.

At about 7:45 p.m., the deckhand was in the captain’s salon aboard the Natchez when he “saw smoke passing the window,” the NTSB report stated. Upon inspection, he located the source of the smoke: a growing fire near the starboard side of the engine room. He immediately called 911 and alerted the captain and company officials.

Fire investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) examined the area and identified the hot work that took place that day as the source of the ignition. Further, the ATF identified combustible materials (boxes and plastics) stored on shelving within a couple feet of where the hot work took place as the likely fuel for the fire.

The NTSB noted that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards call for combustible materials to be moved at least 35 feet away from a hot work site. “Where relocation is impracticable, combustibles shall be protected with flameproofed covers or otherwise shielded with metal or asbestos guards or curtains,” the standard states.

According to NTSB, a Natchez official stated that “the company always relied on the contractor conducting hot work on their vessels to have a hot work policy in place and enforce it.

“Investigators found that the hot work contractor had no written safety policy or procedure in place for the employees to review and follow when preparing for and conducting hot work on board a vessel,” the NTSB report stated. “All directions regarding the safety preparation of the area for hot work were passed verbally to the employees by the project superintendent.”

In concluding its report, the NTSB stated the agency has investigated multiple fires of late that were caused by a smoldering fire, one where combustion proceeds “slowly and steadily on the materials surface with little heat and no smoke or flame.”

“A smoldering fire can long outlast the time a fire watch observes an area following hot work,” the NTSB stated. “Therefore, it is critical to evaluate work areas for fire hazards and ensure that combustibles are relocated or protected with flameproofed covers/curtains or otherwise shielded with sheet metal. In addition, crew members involved in hot work should be trained to identify hazards such as combustibles and to take action to remove or protect them from hot work.”