Aug 232009

At 9 pm the oil tanker Formosaproduct Brick, carrying naptha, and the bulk carrier Ostende Max collided about 20 nautical miles off the Malaysian resort city of Port Dickson on passage to Singapore. Nine seafarers died in the subsequent fire aboard Formosaproduct Brick.

What happens next?

Several investigations will currently be underway into the collision and fire that lead to the Formosaproduct Brick tragedy. Most important of these will be the flag-state and coastal state investigations which look for ways to prevent this sort of incident from occurring rather than finding out who to blame or who should pay for the damage.

Four ‘states of substantial interest are involved: Liberia, the flag state of Formosproduct Brick, the Isle of Man – the registry to which Ostende Max belonged, Malaysia in whose waters it took place, and China, whose nationals were injured and killed in the incident. Because the incident resulted in a serious casualty, a safety investigation to determine the root causes and make recommendations to reduce the chances of repetition is mandatory under the regulations of the International Maritime Organisation.

This investigation and its evidence cannot be part of a criminal or liability investigation under IMO regulations but Malaysia is free to launch its own separate criminal investigation. The IMO does not prohibit individual states carrying out other investigations,such as by the coastguard or the maritime authority should they wish to do so but these do not replace the IMO mandated safety/casualty investigation.

Other investigations will be conducted by the shipowner’s P&I Club, which is basically the insurer. Official investigations usually take longer than those by insurance companies and are also expected to make their findings public while the finding of the insurer may be subject to commercial confidentiality.

In situations like this it is common for an agency of one state of substantial interest to take the lead.

Information provided to investigators is normally treated as a matter of confidence and usually cannot, by law, be included in criminal investigations. Seafarers should be apprised of their rights and of any risks to themselves that may be incurred by giving evidence.

The investigations themselves are usually carried out by the investigators going to the ship, gathering evidence, interviewing witness at a convenient place and consulting with experts in specific fields such as, in the Formosaproduct Brick, fire and fire prevention.

Both ships are believed to have carried voyage data recorders which record radar, GPS, AIS and other navigational information as well as voices in various parts of the bridge and the bridge wings. While useful, problems have arisen where important data has been overwritten or the device’s memory has been full and newer data not recorded.

The investigations will look at the circumstances surrounding the collision, whether there was a problem with navigational equipment, whether navigational officers were familiar with, appropriately trained and qualified in its use, bridge resource management, lookouts, fatigue, communications issues, whether collision regulations were followed and so on and any role of the vessel traffic information service in the area.

The second thread of the investigation will examine how the fire started, how it grew, the effectiveness of fire fighting, what firefighting drills had been carried out, whether the best firefighting technique were used and the extent to which damage caused by the collision interfered with fire fighting. In particular it will seek to establish how the nine fatalities occurred and why those seafarers were unable to reach safety.

A third thread will study the emergency response by local authorities, port personal and first responders to see whether the response, equipment and training was appropriate and how they could be improved.

At the end will come a series of recommendations that may include changes in regulations and, where shortfalls are found, training, collision prevention, fire prevention and firefighting.

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