The incident

On August 31, the vessel was engaged in shrimping, when the captain directed the two deckhands to retrieve the sample net, which was used to help them determine the possible size of the catch. As they were attempting to pull in the net, the electrically powered winch used to position the sample net lost power.

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Meanwhile, the crew saw that the lights on the stern started to dim and flicker before they too went out. When the captain and the header investigated the problem, they discovered that the electrical breakers to the winch and lights in the engine room had tripped.

They reset the breakers, thus retrieving the sample net using the winch. However, the lights in the stern did not turn back on until an hour later. Because of the electrical problems, the captain decided not to redeploy the sample net. After the net was secured, the captain remained at the helm, and the two deckhands went to bed, intending to return to work a few hours later.

While on watch, the captain noticed that electricity in the wheelhouse was lost. Assuming the breaker to the wheelhouse had tripped, he went to the engine room to reset the breaker and restore power.

While doing so, he encountered a burning odor. At that time, one of the deckhands woke up and also smelled a burning odor. Shortly after, they heard the fire alarm for the engine room and then the generator failure alarm.

When the captain and the deckhand opened the engine room hatch, they discovered that the engine room was filled with smoke and flames. They also saw sparks from overhead cables inside the space.

The captain ran to the sleeping quarters and woke the other crewmember up. He stated to investigators that the fire seemed to be coming from the area around the generator.

As the generator stopped working shortly before the fire was discovered, the crewmembers could not use the electric water pump to extinguish the fire. In addition, they could access only five of the seven portable dry-powder fire extinguishers on board. Two extinguishers were stored in the engine room and could not be reached because of the heat and flames.

The crew managed to briefly limit the intensity of the fire with the fire extinguishers, but as they were emptied the fire regained its intensity and continued to spread before a new extinguisher could be applied.

While the two deckhands were trying to control the fire, the captain decided to prepare the liferaft, in order to abandon the vessel if the fire was not extinguished. The captain also retrieved the emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) from its mount and placed it in a bucket of water to activate the EPIRB alert, which was received by the US Coast Guard District 8 Command Center.

After all five fire extinguishers were expended, the captain and the deckhands recognized that they had to abandon ship. However, the expanding fire and billowing smoke in the living quarters of the vessel prevented them from retrieving the lifejackets. The fire and smoke also prevented them from entering the wheelhouse to broadcast a Mayday call.

The crew then moved the liferaft from the top of the wheelhouse to the deck. They also removed the fill covers from the fuel tanks as a measure they believed would prevent the tanks from exploding from the heat of the fire. Next, they went to the stern and put the liferaft into the water, inflated it, and abandoned the vessel, around one hour after the fire was discovered.

Once in the liferaft, the crewmembers began to set off flares in hopes that other vessels in the area would respond. Although they tried to maneuver the liferaft away from the burning vessel, the current prevented them from getting far from the Master D.

For about 2 hours in the darkness, the crewmembers tried to signal other ships they thought were in the area but were not successful in making contact. After seeing a spotlight of a vessel on the horizon, one of the crewmembers lit off another parachute flare.

The US Coast Guard cutter Coho, which had been deployed to the area in response to the EPIRB alert received by the District 8 Command Center, turned toward them and sped to the scene. The crewmembers were rescued and remained on board the cutter until a small boat from Station South Padre Island arrived to take them back to land.

Although the intensity of the fire reduced after the rescue of the Master D crew, it continued to burn for 26 more hours, until the vessel sank the next day in 380 feet of water. About 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lube oil had been on board the vessel when the fire started. A 400-foot-by-1-mile oil sheen was seen on the surface.

Probable cause

The National Transportation Safety Board found out that the probable cause of the fire aboard the fishing vessel Master D was leaking lube oil from the diesel generator that contacted a hot engine surface and ignited.

A factor to the eventual sinking was the failure of fire-damaged nonmetallic hoses connected to through-hull fittings below the waterline.

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