Combustible materials near hot work led to fire is report finding

Combustible materials left unprotected near hot work led to a fire on the passenger vessel Natchez in New Orleans, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has said in its accident report. The fire resulted in $1.5 million in damages to the vessel.

The passenger vessel Natchez was moored and out of service when a fire broke out on May 3, 2022. The Natchez operated daytime and dinner jazz cruises daily on the Mississippi River, departing and returning from the French Quarter in New Orleans. No pollution or injuries were reported.

The Natchez had been undergoing renovations since January 2021 for an extensive overhaul, with a goal to return to service in 2023. On the day of the fire, contractors were removing the vessel’s main electrical panel to install a replacement. After work was completed for the day, the Natchez deckhand serving as the security watchstander saw smoke and flames in the engine room. The New Orleans Fire Department extinguished the fire. Most fire damage was contained within the generator space that housed the panel, with minor heat damage to the engine room and minor smoke damage to the external passenger decks located directly above the fire.

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

NTSB investigators found neither the vessel owner nor the hot work contractor had a written safety policy or procedures in place for employees to review and follow when preparing for and conducting hot work on the vessel. Fire safety plans are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

The project superintendent told investigators that he evaluated the generator space before the hot work and determined that it was safe based on his 40 years of work experience conducting hot work. In addition, the project superintendent, the employee conducting the hot work, and the employee who served as the fire watch told investigators that they were unaware of the OSHA regulations concerning the risk of having combustible material near hot work.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of fire was the failure of contractor and vessel personnel to identify and then either remove or adequately protect combustible materials near hot work.

Lessons learned

The NTSB has investigated multiple fires following the completion of hot work within a space that were determined to be caused by a smoldering fire.

– A smoldering fire is formed when combustible material ignites, but the combustion proceeds slowly and steadily on the material’s surface with little heat and no smoke or flame.
– A smoldering fire is not easily detected, and depending upon its surroundings, it can last for hours after the initial ignition and can quickly grow into a flaming fire with no warning.
– A smoldering fire can long outlast the time a fire watch observes an area following hot work. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate work areas for fire hazards and ensure that combustibles are relocated or protected with flameproofed covers/curtains or otherwise shielded with sheet metal. In addition, crewmembers involved in hot work should be trained to identify hazards such as combustibles and to take action to remove or protect them from hot work.

Download the full report: Mir-23-02 Natchez

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