Ferry fire probe draws blank

ACCIDENT investigators are drawing a blank over the fire on a North Sea ferry, which was carrying more than 600 passengers and crew.Top level inquiries were launched five months ago into the blaze on board the P&O Norsea but the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) said today that the incident was still "under investigation" and its cause not established.

By Richard Cornwell

ACCIDENT investigators are drawing a blank over the fire on a North Sea ferry, which was carrying more than 600 passengers and crew.

Top level inquiries were launched five months ago into the blaze on board the P&O Norsea but the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) said today that the incident was still "under investigation" and its cause not established.

It hopes to publish its findings this year but at the moment cannot say when and is consulting the ship's owners and maritime experts to build up a full picture of exactly how the fire happened.


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The incident happened just 17 days before Suffolk axed its firefighting at sea capability – leaving incidents on the county's coast to be covered by firefighters from Lincolnshire.

It spelled out just how serious a situation could be at sea and the Evening Star launched a campaign to highlight the problem.

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A spokesman for the MAIB said investigations into the P&O Norsea were continuing and a report would be made in due course and be a public document.

"Inspectors consider evidence from as many sources as possible. If necessary, they will call in technical experts from outside the branch," he said.

"The MAIB places particular emphasis on identifying the human element in the causes of an accident.

"The branch aims to improve safety for all those who work at, or travel by, sea, and its findings almost always lead to recommendations aimed at preventing similar accidents."

The P&O Norsea was eight miles off Great Yarmouth on September 2 – en route from Hull to Zeebrugge – when one of its four engines caught fire, leaving it drifting powerless for seven hours in the North Sea.

While crew members set off the vessel's automatic firefighting system at 2.10am, passengers assembled at muster points on deck.

At first it was thought the ship's automatic system, which closes off the area and pumps carbon dioxide gas in to starve the fire of oxygen, had brought the blaze under control, but then flames flared again and onshore help was sought.

Helicopters from Wattisham and Leconfield, North Yorkshire, picked up a team of nine specialist firefighters from Lowestoft and seven colleagues from Ipswich – officers whose role has since been axed.

Lifeboat crews and 11 support vessels stayed nearby until 9am when the ship restarted its engines.

MAIB statistics for 2001 – the latest year for which they are available – show the branch investigated 133 accidents involving merchant shipping, a steady decline from a decade ago when the figure was twice as high.

However, in 1994 there were 24 fires on ferries, compared with 21 in 2001.

Numast says the risk of fire has not diminished and yet the fire-fighting capacity has been halved since 1995. Both cargo and passenger ships are getting bigger, and more hazardous chemicals are being carried, and action is urgently needed.

WEBLINK: www.maib.dft.gov.uk

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