Written by Jen Finn
In the line of fire
From U.S. Coast Guard reports
Late one December night, the crew of a 200-foot steel tuna seiner fishing more than 700 miles north of American Samoa prepared to steam home.
At approximately 10 p.m., the chief engineer visited the engine room. He and the crewman assigned to the engineering watch were getting ready to repair an auxiliary engine.
Around 11:15, the watchman saw what looked like an exhaust leak coming from the machinery space overhead. Following the smoke trail, the duo discovered a fire in the galley.
The chief engineer sounded the fire alarm and began battling the blaze with dry chemical and carbon dioxide extinguishers. An alert crewman quickly secured the circuit feeding the galley's exhaust blowers and electrical equipment, but the fire raged on.
Working from the bridge, the skipper energized the boat's main fire pump, charged the fire main, ordered personnel to assist in firefighting efforts, and assisted the fire party as they donned protective gear. He instructed the chief engineer to start the main to turn the boat upwind.
But the fire's intensity increased. Flames engulfed the crew quarters and adjoining accommodation spaces. The skipper made radio distress calls, but got no response.
The skipper had the crew ready one of the large power seine skiffs and shortly after 1 a.m., gave the abandon ship order. As the skiff pulled away, there was a loud explosion in the bow. Moments later the tuna boat began listing sharply to port.
The crew of another seiner had been fishing 10 miles away and overheard the distress calls. They recovered all 22 tuna boat crew members unharmed.
The skipper and crew weren't alerted to the fire by the smoke detectors or fire alarms, but by the chief engineer manually activating the alarm system. Fires left undetected will generate radiant heat that can spread throughout the vessel and ignite new fires.
Alarms must be serviced and tested regularly, and repaired or replaced if not working properly. Contain and isolate onboard fires by closing doors, hatches, ventilators, and exhausts. Prevent heat transfer by spraying adjacent surfaces with water to keep them cool.
Smoke emanating from the galley appeared to be gray with flashes of orange, witnesses reported, suggesting that the fire's origin was electrical. Information gleaned from witness statements revealed that an unqualified crew member had recently performed electrical work on galley equipment, which is believed to be the blaze's source.
Salt air can corrode a vessel's electrical system and a steel hull can compound factors by causing short-circuiting, which often results in equipment and wiring overheating or arcing. Only qualified personnel should install, maintain, test, and repair approved marine electrical equipment.
Although the skipper and chief engineer couldn't save their boat, their quick thinking and planning kept the crew safe.
NMFS has awarded 16 grants totaling more than $2.5 million as part of its Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program.
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