WASHINGTON — Federal investigators on Tuesday blamed the shipping company Baja Ferries' poor maintenance and safety training for a fire that caused six serious injuries aboard the Caribbean Fantasy near Puerto Rico in 2016.
The National Transportation Safety Board noted that nobody died in the fire Aug. 17, 2016, while 387 passengers and 124 crew members made it to shore about two miles away.
But the evacuation of the ship took 3 hours and 43 minutes, rather than the goal of 30 minutes, according to investigators. The accident caused an estimated $20 million in damage. The fire continued to burn for three days before the ship was towed to San Juan harbor and extinguished.
The fire spread quickly because fuel valves were blocked in open positions, investigators found. Three life boats failed to deploy correctly for lack of crew training. And five serious ankle injuries were blamed on an inflated slide set at too steep an angle to reach life rafts.
“This is a case of if it could have gone wrong, it did go wrong,” said Earl Weener, a member of the safety board.
The Caribbean Fantasy, which traveled between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, wasn't considered a typical cruise ship because it also carried cargo in trailers, shipping containers and cars. But the ship could have carried 1,150 people.
Fire erupted after a pipe leaked fuel onto one engine’s hot exhaust manifold, investigators found. The fire spread quickly and overwhelmed fire-suppression equipment because quick-close valves that could have shut off the fuel supply were bolted in open positions to avoid inadvertent shut-off during critical parts of a voyage such as docking, investigators said.
Despite carbon-dioxide suppression and water-misting equipment, the fire spread to a garage area, where cars burned and explosions thundered.
Because the ship was close to port and rescue equipment, the master ordered passengers and crew to abandon ship about an hour after the fire started. But the evacuation was difficult.
The ship had three life boats. But hooks that held the boats as they were lowered full of passengers to the water had pins that must be removed in order to release the boats. Crew members weren’t trained in removing the pins, investigators said.
After being unable to release one life boat, the crew raised it 6 feet off the water so that the U.S. Coast Guard could move a ship adjacent and pull people off. But two passengers either jumped or fell into the water in the meantime as people began to panic, investigators said.
The life boats were designed to carry up to 30% of the people on the ship because of the relatively shorter length of its voyages. Life rafts were available for the rest.
But an inflatable slide that led from the Caribbean Fantasy's deck to rafts in the water was angled too steeply, and five passengers suffered ankle injuries from the fast descent, investigators said.
A sixth serious injury was a crew member who suffered smoke inhalation, investigators said.
Michael Karr, who investigated survival factors for the safety board, said if the accident had happened farther from port, in rougher seas or at night, “the result could have been catastrophic.”
Robert Sumwalt, the safety-board chairman, said the ship was prohibited from U.S. waters after failed inspections. The ship was placed in detention three times in three years — 2014, 2015 and 2016 — by U.S. and British authorities for inspection problems, Sumwalt said.
“This ship did have a checkered past,” Sumwalt said. “There were consistent problems — repeat problems — that were found over the years.”
Larry Bowling, who investigated the ship’s relations with government inspectors, said detentions are rare: The Coast Guard had a detention ratio of 1% last year, or 91 out of about 9,100 inspections.
“The detention of any vessel is rare,” Bowling said.
The safety board recommended that inspections by the Coast Guard and Italian-based RINA Services, which regulated the ship for the Panama Maritime Authority, should ensure that fuel valves close as intended. The board also recommended Baja Ferries conduct better emergency training for evacuations.
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