Article Archive
Silent Alarm
A pencil jammed in an alarm switch almost turns an ammunition ship into a floating bomb
Volume 23, No. 5

Imagine fighting a fire inside a giant steel oven. Worse, imagine having to fight that fire blind. Southport (NC) Fire Department volunteer John Sledge said that describes the conditions responders faced battling a fire aboard a loaded ammunition cargo ship in July 2001.

"By the time you got five feet inside the (engine room) door, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face," Sledge said.

From gaining access to enduring broiling heat, firefighters overcame a variety of difficulties and brought the ship fire under control within six hours. The blaze never came close to reaching the five million pound cargo of explosives aboard.

"Most of us had little or no experience with shipboard fire fighting, particularly of this type, so we were in somewhat unfamiliar territory," Sledge said.

The Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, NC, is the largest ammunition port in the nation and the Army's primary east coast deep-water port. For this reason, the 16,000-acre Army-owned site near the Cape Fear river includes a large undeveloped buffer zone and huge sand berms for safety, in case of explosion.

Sunny Point is the only Department of Defense terminal equipped to handle containerized ammunition, as opposed to ammunition loaded on pallets. The terminal transshipped more than 90 percent of the resupply munitions sent to and from the Persian Gulf during operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Sortie, amounting to nearly 2.1 million tons of cargo.

At about 4:10 p.m. on July 14, 2001, a fire started onboard the 950-foot container ship SSG Edward A. Carter, Jr., while the vessel was moored at the south wharf of the terminal. Since the fire occurred on a Saturday afternoon, the explosive cargo was not being handled. Eighteen of the vessel's crew were onboard when the fire started.

According to a subsequent Coast Guard report, the ship's second assistant engineer started a transfer of about 20 tons of heavy fuel oil from the port and starboard overflow tanks to a central settling tank. The transfer was left unsupervised other than by automatic equipment.

"Their electronic system measured the tank levels and sounded an alarm if the preset levels were exceeded," Sledge said. "If you are starting to overfill the tanks, it sounds a warning tone."

Unfortunately, because cables to several tanks had become contaminated with fuel oil, false alarms had become a repeated nuisance. The easiest solution was to simply turn off the alarms.

"There was a spring-loaded switch on the control panel that you held down to acknowledge that the alarm had sounded," Sledge said. "A pencil had been jammed into that switch to keep it in the acknowledged position. It had been that way for months before the fire."

Fuel oil overfilled the settling tank and began overflowing into the vent piping connecting it to the main engine mixing tank. The fuel oil mixed with about one ton of diesel fuel oil, then overflowed into the venting system for that tank. Eventually, the fuel reached a common vent chamber tying together the vent systems for all the tanks aboard.

"Because of all the different branches, it is called the Christmas tree," Sledge said.

During the two weeks before the fire, repeated difficulties with transfers of heavy fuel oil had been reported, indicating that the transfer system was developing blockages that needed to be repaired. The Christmas tree was a suspected source for those blockages.

?"The concern was that rust and corrosion had plugged up some of these lines," Sledge said. "So they disassembled parts of it."

The Coast Guard report states that the chief engineer failed to tag out the heavy fuel oil transfer pump and associated valves to ensure that the transfer system remained off-line while the Christmas tree flanges were disconnected. As a result, the mixed diesel and fuel oil was forced up through two disconnected lines and spilled one deck above the main deck.

"The specific area where this happened is called the fidley, which is like a pipe chase through which the smokestack travels up through the main deck," Sledge said. "There are other conduits and various pieces of equipment found in this pipe chase."

The mixed fuel cascaded over the 01 level deck, which is one deck above the main, or weather deck, making contact with the hot auxiliary boiler exhaust stack several feet away, resulting in ignition. Fire spread quickly throughout the aft levels of the engine room and inside the fidley. A witness reported burning globs of fuel oil the size of baseballs raining down inside the engine room, rapidly expanding the blaze. An initial attempt to use a dry chemical extinguisher to control the fire failed.

Other issues compounded the emergency. An initial attempt to start the main fire pump from the bridge failed, leading to a 10-minute delay in providing water to crew members battling the blaze. It would be 35 minutes into the fire before a low-pressure CO2 system was activated, its effectiveness hopelessly compromised by the open portside doors on either side of the vessel.

"That was allowing a lot of ventilation to get to the fire, allowing it to grow," Sledge said. "There were a number of other hatches that had not been closed to isolate the fire. Smoke spread through the rest of the ship."

Two fatalities resulted from the fire. The vessel's third assistant engineer was found on the 03 level inside the fidley about 12 feet from the fire door leading to the galley. The wiper (the most junior engine room crew member) drowned in the Cape Fear river after jumping overboard through the open port sideport door to escape the engine room. Although a crew member tossed the wiper several life rings, he was unable to reach them before disappearing from sight.

Thick smoke limited access to emergency gear stored where the crew had been trained to muster. No attempts were made to shut any watertight or fire doors to form a fire boundary around the engine room. Soon the fire fighting effort was limited to cooling the main deck and forcing water down the supply vents.?

Sunny Point terminal firefighters arrived within 10 minutes of the first alarm. At the time of the call, only nine terminal personnel were on duty, including the dispatcher.

"Fairly shortly after the federal fire department responded they called the Brunswick County 911 center requesting mutual aid," Sledge said. "Our volunteer department is the closest to the terminal. By the time the emergency was over, every fire department within a five-county area had some amount of equipment or personnel there."

Southport, population 2,300, is an idyllic community near the mouth of the Cape Fear river that has served as a location for television shows like "Dawson's Creek" and several movies. Before the fire aboard the Edward A. Carter, Jr., the closest thing to marine fire fighting handled by the volunteer department involved the city's small boat marina, Sledge said.

"It's become less commercial and more tourist oriented now, but we used to have a lot of commercial fishing boats," Sledge said. "My department has been to a lot of boat fires, but the biggest of those was a 40- or 50-foot shrimp boat."

That inexperience would hinder fire fighting operation. Any cargo vessel weighing more than 500 gross tons is required to have an international shore connection permitting the shipboard fire main systems to be charged from another source. Unfortunately, an accident damaged the hand-wheel controlling the starboard aft end connection.

"Somebody stood up on top of the handle and broke it off," Sledge said. "We weren't able to open that valve."

The crew failed to alert firefighters responding from onshore that a second shore connection was available along the port aft end of the second deck.

Likewise, the ship's fire control plan was mislaid after an initial review by firefighters upon arrival. The firefighters were unaware that a duplicate of the fire plan was kept on the vessel's main deck.

"We went for hours where they couldn't find the plans," Sledge said. "That didn't help."

Key personnel in the Southport VFD could call upon their experience as industrial emergency responders. The fire chief worked at a nearby Archer Daniels Midland citric acid plant Sledge was an operator and shift brigade commander at the two-unit, 1,875 megawatt Brunswick Nuclear Plant located next to the military terminal.

The first challenge faced by arriving firefighters was gaining access to the vessel, Sledge said. The open sideport door provided the most immediate access to the engine room. However, crossing the gap between the vessel and the wharf would be the first test of courage for the firefighters.

"They had put down a gang plank between the vessel and the wharf," Sledge said. "It was scary crawling across this board 15 or 20 feet above the water. It was very unstable, what with the movement of the ship and everything."

Six firefighters gained access into the engine room with two charged hoses through the open starboard sideport door. The fire hoses were charged by fire trucks located on the wharf, which were supplied water from nearby fire hydrants. Firefighters did not use any of the vessel's fire hoses because the pressure was too low.

Once aboard the vessel, the firefighters were reduced to working blind because of the intense smoke.

"You couldn't see the fire but you knew what general direction it was in," Sledge said. "So we were just shooting water in that direction. Probably a lot of that water was not effective. You had no way of knowing."

Two teams were set up inside the engine room, one on either side of the engine. The teams used a water and foam mixture to cool the hotspots which were predominately located below the main engine in the aft sections of the engine room.

Firefighters used 1,300 gallons of AFFF against the fire. The team was initially unable to advance through the engine room due to the intense smoke and heat. Water sprayed into the back of the main engine produced a great deal of steam. Radio contact could not be established because of the vessel's metal structure. Firefighters relayed information to the incident command through a messenger system.

At about 6 p.m. the vessel's emergency generator failed. After attempts to restart it failed, firefighters ordered the ship's crew to evacuate to shore. By this time, the shoreside fire response included nearly 150 firefighters from 30 surrounding volunteer, city and county fire departments.

About 20 minutes later, a 32-foot fire boat from the Wilmington (NC) Fire Department arrived on scene. The fire boat was directed to use their monitor to cool the sideshell plating along the port side of the engine room space and two cargo holds. A fire boat operated by the terminal was not available until approximately 8 p.m. because it was only manned during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Once the terminal's boat arrived, three monitors delivering 7,500 gpm were directed to cool the aft end of the engine room exhaust stack above the main deck.

During most of the fire, the Southport VFD responders found themselves applying water from a catwalk overlooking the engine room.

"That night after the fire was extinguished and the smoke cleared, I went back," Sledge said. "Past the railing you were looking at the top of the diesel engine. It was a 15- to 20-foot drop in some places."

Worse than the blindness was the heat, Sledge said.

"It was a matter of just going in and gritting it out," he said. "It was the hottest fire I've ever experienced. It was like walking into an oven."

What the Southport VFD lacked in experience it made up for in equipment. It was the closest department that owned a thermal imaging camera. Brought aboard after the first 90 minutes of fire fighting, that camera became an important tool in locating the fire deep in the smoke- clogged innards of the burning vessel.

"The camera allowed for better stream placement and foam application," Sledge said.

With the camera identifying hot spots, two fire teams were able to move further in the engine room. The camera identified the highest concentration of heat right below the main engine.

The fire was declared under control by 10 p.m. and extinguished by 1:30 a.m. on Sunday.

Firefighters with the terminal brigade routinely train in marine fire fighting. But despite the July 2001 fire, training for marine fire fighting on the scale this emergency required remained a low priority for most area fire departments, Sledge said.

"That was literally the one time that I have done anything like that in the 25-plus years I have been with the department."

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