Hot work started fires in engine room, NTSB notes

Flammable materials left unprotected near hot work led to an engine room fire on a New Orleans passenger ship, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found.

The passenger ship natchez was moored and out of service when a fire broke out on 3 May 2022. No pollution or injuries were reported, but the fire resulted in $1.5 million in damage to the ship.

The natchez operated daily day and evening jazz cruises on the Mississippi, departing and returning from the French Quarter in New Orleans. The ship has been undergoing a major overhaul since January 2021, with a goal of returning to service in 2023.

On the day of the fire, contractors removed the ship’s main electrical panel in order to install a new one. After work for the day, the natchez The seaman acting as watchman saw smoke and flames in the engine room. The New Orleans Fire Department extinguished the fire and contained damage to the generator room inside the engine room where the panel was located, with minor heat damage to the engine room and minor smoke damage to the external passenger decks that were directly above the fire.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined that the fire originated near the deck along the forward bulkhead, adjacent to where the hot work was being conducted. NTSB investigators saw photos taken before the fire that showed boxes, wooden shelves, and other combustible materials in the storage areas near where the hot work was being done.

NTSB investigators found that neither the ship’s owner nor the hot work contractor had written safety policies or procedures for employees to review and follow when preparing for and performing hot work on the ship. Fire protection plans are required by the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fire was the contractor’s and ship’s personnel’s failure to identify and then either remove or adequately protect combustible materials in the vicinity of hot work.

“The NTSB investigated several fires in a room following the completion of hot work that were determined to be caused by a smoldering fire,” the report reads. “A smoldering fire occurs when combustible material is ignited but combustion progresses slowly and steadily on the material’s surface with little heat and no smoke or flame. A smoldering fire is not easy to spot and, depending on the environment, can last hours after initial ignition and quickly escalate into a flaming fire without warning. It is important to assess work areas for fire hazards and ensure combustible materials are relocated or shielded with fire resistant covers/curtains or other sheet metal. In addition, crew members involved in hot work should be trained to recognize hazards such as combustibles and take action to remove or protect them from hot work.”

Naval Investigation Report 23-02? is available on the NTSB website.

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