Major ship fires and damage control while in port


We learned in our previous article about handling cargo hold fire while at sea. The chances of cargo hold catching fire are equally likely at port also. It may seem quite a relief that once the ship is near port, we just need to call the fire brigade and forget about it and leave the ship to live in a hotel. Well if things were so simple, I would not be writing this article. So in this article let us learn what actions should the ship staff take in case there is a fire in a cargo hold while the ship is at port either loading or discharging cargo. These actions are necessary even if it does not seem to be a major ship fire at the first instant

Fire in Cargo Hold at Port

Fire in a cargo hold at port does not always mean that it is safe since the ship is near land and assistance is readily available. To give you an idea of what can go wrong; I would like you to narrate an unfortunate incident where a ship carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer in cargo holds caught sudden fire and exploded killing nearly 600 people on the shore as well and shattering the window panes of nearly the entire city. You can see a picture of this incident below. Although nearly a century has passed since that incident, the very thought and sight of the same still instills fear in the mind of mariners and an instinct to respect fire and not take it lightly.

Damage at port due to ship cargo hold explosion

And do you know the basic cause of this disaster – sheer carelessness and lack of foresight on the part of ship staff especially the Master. He simply refused to put away the minor fire which was noted on time for the fear of spoiling the cargo which was hardly worth a few hundred dollars. So the moral of this terrible incident is – never ignore a slight cargo hold fire and deal with full seriousness.

Damage Control: Steps to be taken

  • The very first step in case of fire or any emergency is to make lot of noise. So sound the general alarm, inform authorities on shore, everyone on ship and whoever is concerned with the ship.
  • When the ship is at shore, normally some people would be on shore leave and hence if the responsible officers are ashore, they should be immediately informed if possible using mobile phones etc so that they can make their way back at the earliest.
  • Stop all cargo work immediately in all holds and send the outside people ashore. At this point you might think that the ship staff needs to run ashore but let me tell you that this is not the case. The responsibility of fighting fire on the ship is that of the staff and not the shore. Though they certain would come to assist in such a situation
  • The reason is that every ship is different and even small things such as location of valves, pump switches etc is important for quick action. Even if the shore staff is there, the ship staff needs to be with them to assist regarding these matters as the latter are well versed with the in and out of the ship like the back of their hands.
  • Normally during cargo operations, the blowers are kept running and they should be either shut down or only one blower can be kept operational if there is lot of smoke. But this is just a general statement and the duty officer needs to take on-the-fly decision regarding this.
  • Attack the fire using the pre-planned fire fighting party using either hand held extinguishers or the CO2 fire system, depending on the situation.
  • After the fire has been extinguished (or at least it seems to be extinguished) don’t leave it unattended and keep an eye for revival of fire. Also take care to ensure that no one enters the place for curiosity sake or taking out some belongings which might have been left there.
  • Complete all the necessary formalities such as paperwork when the real process is finished.