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The Carnival Splendor suffered a engine room fire in November 2010 which left her drifting without propulsion for several days off the Pacific coast of Mexico. She was eventually towed into harbour. Although not as bad as the Carnival Triumph fire last year, which left that ship totally without power for anything, the Splendor event was bad enough. At the time it became knows as the ‘Spam Cruise’ thanks to a suggestion that the Coast Guard were going to make an emergency drop of spam in order to provide fresh food. Anyway, the US Coast Guard has now published its report.

It doesn’t make comfortable reading for Carnival. Although the cause of the fire may have been unavoidable – basically one of the huge diesel engines tore itself to bits, with major components such as cylinder con-rods erupting out of the engine block – pretty much everything that could go wrong after that, did go wrong:

  • the engine room staff didn’t manually trigger the hi-tech sprinkler system (“Hi-Fog”) as they left the engine space. To be fair, they were fleeing a fire, the room was rapidly filling with smoke, and in any case there was an automatic switch, triggered when the alarm went off. However:
  • when the alarm did go off (very shortly after the fire started), a bridge officer simply reset the system – twice, if I’m reading the report correctly. This had major implication: it was 15 minutes before the sprinklers were turned on from a control panel and it was too late – by then the most significant fire was in electrical cables that were above the level of the sprinklers, so the sprinklers did nothing against it. This fire, which was actually a secondary fire, was started as a result of the heat from the primary fire melting and then igniting the cables insulation and sheathing. This fire turned out to be very hard to extinguish – it flashed back to life several times in the hours afterwards;
  • The firefighting efforts experienced problems. The report finds that the firefighting teams “lacked familiarity with the engine room spaces & equipment”, there was a poor choice of equipment, and the firefighting strategy was not good. However, the fire was eventually extinguished;
  • There was also a CO2 suppression system – a last-ditch facility – which, when the Captain tried to use it, simply failed to operate. Parts of this system were showing corrosion and also some signs of bad installation, but most important the system itself could probably not be operated manually in the circumstances prevailing – manpower would not be sufficient to open the valves. The IMO had issued revised guidance in 2006 about the design of these CO2 systems and specifically the valves in them, but the Splendor was built before the revised guidance was issued and thus was equipped with a system that would not work in the circumstances present;
  • Because the fire burned out the electrical cables in the engine room – and these aren’t 240 volt domestic cables, these included the main output cables from the generators  – there was a significant power loss. An emergency generator started to provide emergency power to the bridge but it failed almost immediately; subsequently it was restarted, but later had to be restarted once more. But the damage to the cables in the engine effectively wiped out all the main power in the ship, at least until the fire was finally contained.

The report makes recommendations on all of these points. Recommendation 1 concerns the operation of the Hi-Fog system; recommendation 2 covers general maintenance of engine room equipment and also familiarity with engine room spaces by possible firefighting teams; recommendation 3 say that Lloyd’s Register, the standard-setting body for Panama (the ship’s flag state) should inspect the CO2 systems on all the Dream class ships (Splendor is a member of this class); and further recommendations concerning the evaluation by authorities of fire drills.

Here’s a link to the full report. (Give it a few seconds to open – it’s a pretty big PDF.)

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