Towing vessel Safety Runner tied up on the Mobile River next to two Kirby barges at the Oil Recovery Company Gas Freeing Terminal, ORC, unaware that the barges were being cleaned of residual diesel. Shortly afterwards the engines aboard Safety Runner began racing and could not be shut down, there was a fire which spread to the to the barges, resulting in explosions.
Three people sustained serious burn injuries. The total damage to the vessel and barge was estimated at $5.7 million.
Poor operations manuals and uncertified personnel played a key role in the incident.
One of the ORC employees later told investigators that, sometime between 2000 and 2030, an air hose disconnected from one of the fans on board Kirby 28182 and the fan malfunctioned. He recalled that the PIC Person In Charge, shut down two dockside compressors that powered the fans before they investigated the fan malfunction. He said that while the PIC examined the fan, the captain of the Safety Runner pulled his vessel into the facility betwee Kirby 28194 and DM 976, another barge, to drop off a radio technician.
Shortly after the radio technician departed the vessel, the Safety Runner’s main engines “started to run away.” Tank vapors from the barges had entered the air intakes for the Safety Runner’s main diesel engine, fuelling the engines. The captain tried to shut down the engines from the vessel’s pilothouse, but failed. Two deckhands then activated the engine’s emergency shutdowns on the vessel’s main deck; however, the engines still did not shut down.
The concentration of the vapors from the tankbarges was high enough that it introduced additional fuel to power the engines, even though the vessel’s normal fuel supply had been shut off. Then flames shot along both sides of the Safety Runner and onto the two Kirby barges, resulting in several explosions. The crews of the Safety Runner and the Ricky J Leboeuf, the vessel working with the barges, sounded their vessels’general alarms. The Safety Runner’s entire crew then abandoned the vessel ashore and the Ricky J Leboeuf’s crew members disconnected their vessel from the Kirby barges and maneuvered away from the facility.
Then came the blasts.
NTSB investigators found evidence of inadequate management oversight by ORC, including employing a barge PIC without proper credentials, and not having an operations manual that specifically addressed tank cleaning operations at the ORC facility. Instead, ORC used an operations manual intended only for mobile facilities such as vacuum trucks and tankers.
In that manual, ORC had attached pages from the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, OCIMF, International Safety Guide for Oil Tankers and Terminals, ISGOTT, that described only what procedures ought to be contained in operations manuals, rather than writing its own procedures specific to the risks associated with tank-cleaning operations at the ORC Facility. The manual did not address hazards associated with motor vessels ― full of ignition sources ― docking alongside barges during tank- cleaning operations.
The probable cause of the fire and explosions, says the NTSB, was the failure of the ORC Facility to isolate tank-cleaning operations from sources of ignition. Contributing to the accident was ORC’s failure to provide its employees with tank-cleaning training and procedures that followed industry standards and government regulations for reducing the risk of fire during tank-cleaning operations.
This appears to be yet another case of a company skimping on documentation, concerned with compliance rather than safety.