NORFOLK, VA. (WAVY) — The National Transportation Safety Board said the Spirit of Norfolk likely caught on fire after combustible material got too close to the exhaust pipe, according to its report more than a year after it caught on fire.
It happened June 7, 2022. The Coast Guard received a call about an engine room fire on the passenger vessel with 108 people on board. Fortunately, no one got hurt.
The report stated that the new-hire captain noticed the port-side engine revolutions per minute readout dropped to zero, according to the report. An alarm came on and the captain told a staff member to check it out. That’s when the captain saw smoke from the portside engine room, according to the NTSB.
In the report, it noted that one crew member went to the engine room. The crew member recalled seeing “smoke on the ceiling and a flame on the outboard side of the port main,” and that it was “too dark … to make any type of entry.”
The NTSB said the fire started in the engine room. The report stated items like cardboard boxes and plastic totes were likely stored too close to the exhaust pipe of the port-side generator that caught fire.
The captain told investigators that they “always” kept things like plumbing parts, filters, air filters, HVAC pumps and a starter for one of the generators on the shelves.
The NTSB said the vessel lacked fire detection and engine room fixed gas distinguishing systems.
It’s something the Spirit of Norfolk wasn’t required to have due to Subchapter K regulatory exemptions.
In the report, the NTSB said that “by the time crew became aware of the fire, the engine room was filled with smoke, and they were unable to enter to fight the fire. The NTSB concludes that the lack of a fire detection system in the engine room delayed detection and allowed for the growth of the fire, which precluded crew firefighting efforts.”
The NTSB also pointed out the lack of fire extinguishing systems. It said the crew “did not have the option to secure the natural passage of air to the engine room because none of the ventilation trunks were fitted with dampers.”
The agency said if the ventilation opening were able to close, it could have shut the supply of oxygen to the engine room and the fire intensity would “likely have diminished.”
The NTSB recommended the U.S. Coast Guard remove the existing exemptions and require older exempt passenger vessels to have these fire detection and extinguishing systems.
“It is time for the U.S. Coast Guard to remove the exemption from the regulations,” said NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy. “More than 100 of these exempted small passenger vessels are currently operating without fire detection or firefighting systems in their engine rooms while carrying hundreds of passengers—a completely unnecessary risk to passengers and crew. Vessels carrying a large number of people, no matter when they began operations, should be required to have fire detection and prevention systems so crews can take immediate action to protect and save lives.”
According to the NTSB, the current regulations allow small passenger vessels operating before March 10, 1996 to be exempt from certain construction, arrangement and installation requirements like engine-room fire detection and fixed fire extinguishing systems.
The report also said the communication between firefighting teams and the unified command was ineffective.
It describes the unified command being unaware that firefighting teams couldn’t find the engine room emergency hatch. In one instance, a fire attack team opened the engine room door instead of the hatch, and the fire spread.
The Coast Guard recently put out a safety alert about best practices on board vessels. It included using hazard tape to clearly show the location of engine room hatches and storing combustibles away from potential ignition sources.
In the review, the NTSB identified additional safety concerns, including mooring a vessel for best access by responders, including personnel familiar with the vessel in the unified command, accelerating the stability assessment and the arrival of tanks for contaminated water and developing training plans to educate land-based firefighters in Coast Guard plans.
The Spirit of Norfolk was a total constructive loss. It was valued at $5 million. The report said 191,000 gallons had to be pumped off the vessel. The Spirit of Norfolk had “sustained fire damage throughout all the decks, and the exterior had thermal discoloration and charring.”
The report explains the engine room’s exhaust ventilation system had soot around the openings.
City Cruises and other sightseeing vessels told the NTSB they are committed to a multi-year project to retrofit fixed fire extinguishing and detection systems.
WAVY received a statement from a City Cruises spokesperson on Oct. 25.
“City Cruises, the operator of the Spirit of Norfolk, is committed to a multi-year project to retrofit our vessels with fixed fire suppression and detection systems. We as an organization are proud of the way in which our crew responded and worked with other commercial vessel operators to quickly and efficiently respond to this emergency situation. The safety and security of our guests and crew continues to remain our highest priority.”
City Cruises told the agency by the end of 2023, it’ll complete the installation of fixed engine room fire extinguishing systems in four other vessels in the fleet. According to the report, the fire detection systems will be added later on the four vessels.
To see the complete NTSB report, see below:
The report states that the Navy and Norfolk fire departments declined Coast Guard and NTSB requests to interview firefighters and members of the UC. WAVY reached out to learn more about why they declined to interview.
A City of Norfolk spokesperson told WAVY, “Under the direction of the City Attorney’s Office and retained outside Counsel, Norfolk Fire-Rescue answered the written inquiry for the USCG which dismissed them from needing to testify.”