Ferry fire failings

Deficiencies in maintenance and fire suppression combined to delay efforts in dealing with an engine room conflagration

Deficiencies in maintenance and fire suppression combined to delay efforts in dealing with an engine room conflagration

In October 2020, the passenger ferry Pride of Hull was headed outbound in the Humber Estuary, UK, when a fire was detected in the vicinity of its thermal oil circulation pumps. Soon afterwards, the 215m (705ft) vessel lost electrical power and propulsion but was able to use its remaining headway to anchor safely to allow its crew to deal with the emergency. The fire suppression system activated automatically but didn’t operate as expected and was unable to control the fire, which was eventually doused using the ship’s fixed CO2 system. The Bahamas-registered vessel, owned by P&O Ferries, was able to return to port the following day under its own power with no injuries, damage or pollution reported.  

Breathing apparatus

The incident began when Pride of Hull’s fire detection system alarm sounded and the bridge’s fire panel indicated that a fire had started in the aft engine room.

A firefighting team entered the compartment wearing breathing apparatus to try and identify the source of the problem but were beaten back by thick black smoke.

When the crew and passengers were safely mustered, the chief engineer released CO2 into the aft engine room. Monitoring of hot spots and bulkhead temperatures, using the ship’s thermal imaging camera, confirmed when the fire had finally been extinguished.

ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS - June 26, 2016: PRIDE OF HULL at terminal.  This passenger and cargo roll-on/roll-off ship is in service with P&O North Sea Ferries on the Hull - Rotterdam route.
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Fire source

An accident investigation by the Bahamas Maritime Authority revealed that a thermal oil circulation pump had, indeed, been the seat of the fire and that thermal oil was the fuel.  

A metallurgical examination showed that the pump’s impeller end bearing had failed with its drive end bearing collapsing shortly afterwards. This led to the drive end bearing’s exterior ring rotating in the bracket housing, resulting in extreme frictional heating generating a temperature of 1,200°C — well in excess of the oil’s auto-ignition temperature.  

Failures of the mechanical seals and circlips also created pathways for the thermal oil to reach the hot spot internally, along with escaped oil spray that made contact externally. 

Flash point

Prior to the fire, samples of the vessel’s thermal oil were sent regularly to Chevron FAST to be tested. The sample tested shortly before the incident identified that the vessel’s thermal oil had a flash point of 135.5°C — a good way below the safety limit of 140°C. However, the results report did not identify a safety limit or highlight that the flash point was actually lower than the safety limit. Chevron FAST have attributed the absence of safety advice on the test report to the sample label not identifying the equipment it had been drawn from.

Fire suppression

Pride of Hull was fitted with a Consilium fire detection system, Hi-Fog fire suppression system and CO2 fixed firefighting system. CCTV provided a live feed of the machinery spaces, which enabled remote visual checks. However, being live footage only, the CCTV feed was eventually lost due to fire damage, with no way of using it to review the incident. An assessment of the fire suppression system identified that the system’s effectiveness was compromised by pump output when multiple zones were activated and its dependence on a domestic fresh water pump to maintain supply for longer than two minutes. Additionally, the system’s pumps were not connected to the emergency switchboard and therefore stopped when the vessel lost electrical power.

Report findings

The accident investigation report found that the thermal oil circulation pumps aboard Pride of Hull had a history of bearing and mechanical seal failures, and, while the vessel’s fire detection system did activate at the thermal oil circulation pumps, the fire zone naming protocol created confusion and led to a delay in identifying the source of the alarm.

Following the report’s findings, P&O Ferries has, amongst other measures, reviewed its CCTV coverage, has begun implementing Hi-Fog system changes to ensure continuous operation in the event of a black out, and has begun working closely with Chevron FAST to ensure that incorrectly-labelled oil samples are voided and new samples provided.

The Bahamas Maritime Authority, meanwhile, has, itself, been asked to consider, together with other interested States, proposing to the IMO an amendment to MSC.1/Circ.1387 requiring the provision of emergency power for local protection systems.

Previous incidents

Ferry fires continue to be a serious problem — occasionally resulting in tragic human losses. In February this year, eleven people were killed when a fire broke out aboard the 183m (600ft) Euroferry Olympia. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Then, in May, a fire swept through MV Mercraft 2 in the Philippines leading to nine deaths.

The worst recent ferry fire incident occurred in December last year, when the three-decked passenger ferry MV Avijan-10  caught fire off Bangladesh, resulting in at least 40 deaths.

Download the full Pride of Hull report.


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.