The incident

On 23 September 2017, the multipurpose/container vessel Kokopo Chief was loading a cargo of containers and general cargo at Port of Tauranga. Number 4 cargo hold was completed with tiers of packaged timber, after which the hatch lid was closed and containers loaded on top. Cargo operations were completed by about 2230 and the crew stood down to rest before the vessel’s departure, which was scheduled for early the next morning.

Shortly before midnight the ship’s smoke-detection system alarmed, alerting the crew to a fire that had broken out in number 4 cargo hold. The crew response to the fire included activating the ship’s fixed CO2 fire-extinguishing system, which involved sealing the cargo hold and releasing liquid CO2 into the cargo hold.

The master alerted harbour control, which called the local fire service, responded and combined with the ship’s crew to form a joint fire command team and a fire control team. The fire control team monitored the temperatures of the steel surfaces around the cargo hold, which indicated that the fire was being suppressed by the CO2 gas in the hold.

A decision was made to unload the containers on top of the hatch and partially open one of the lids. However, smoke was emitted from under the hatch lid, so it was replaced and any remaining bottles of liquid CO2 were released into the cargo hold. After several hours the temperatures had decreased, so the hatch lid was removed. There were no obvious signs of fire, so the timber packs were unloaded and any remaining hot spots attended to.

Findings

TAIC found that the fire was caused by heat radiating from an incandescent reflector lamp that set fire to packs of timber that had been stowed close to the lamp. The cargo hold lights had not been switched off on completion of loading.

The Commission also found that the ship’s fixed CO2 fire-extinguishing system was effective, but that the fire could have been extinguished sooner if the hatch had not been opened earlier.

  • The fire was caused by heat radiating from an incandescent cargo hold lamp that set fire to packs of timber that had been stowed within 45-50 mm of the lamp.
  • The ship had no written procedure or checklist for ensuring the cargo hold lights were switched off before flammable cargo was loaded against cargo light recesses, or when loading was complete and hatch lids were closed.
  • The CO2 firefighting system and the onboard firefighting procedures onboard the Kokopo Chief were effective in suppressing the fire to a point where the hatch lid could be removed with little risk of the fire re-igniting.
  • Although the co-ordinated response to the fire was eventually effective, the responsibilities of command were not clearly documented and understood by the various authorities involved in responding to the fire.
  • There is a need for shore-based responders to be more familiar with the unique aspects of fighting fires on board ships, so that they can provide effective responses to fires regardless of the circumstances.

Recommendations

The Commission made two recommendations to Fire and Emergency New Zealand to address the other safety issues. The Commission also made recommendations to the IACS and the International Group of P&I Clubs to disseminate the lessons learned from this accident to the global shipping fleet.

Lessons learned

  • Safety procedures such as switching off cargo hold lights should be documented and include systems for checking that they have been carried out
  • Some lamp types generate a substantial amount of heat that can be a fire hazard. Ship owners and operators should consider using other types of lamp that do not generate high heat in locations where the risk of fire is present
  • The required firefighting systems onboard ships are unique to the special design and construction of the ships. When possible, they should be fully utilised in accordance with the operating instructions.

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