The Case Of The Electric Assassin


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Their names were Frank, Hans and Jan, who were Dutch and Tam, who was Indonesian. Not their real names, but they were real people. Two of them are dead.

Frank was Chief Officer, Hans was Chief Engineer, Jan was Second Engineer and Tam was Assistant Engineer.

Zeby Express

Their ship was the Netherlands flagged Zebu Express, an 81.72 metre length over all livestock carrier with five Dutch officers and eight Indonesian crew. She could carry 5,000 sheep or 1,000 cattle.

It anchored off Darwin, Australia, in ballast on July 16 to await another cargo. Her Master and Second Officer were repatriated leaving Chief Officer Frank in charge.

During the voyage to Darwin a leak had developed between the fore peak ballast tank and the bow thruster compartment and seawater had sprayed onto the bow thruster’s electrical motor. The leak was fixed but the electric motor needed cleaning.

It’s now the morning of July 22. Chief Engineer Hans and Second Engineer Jan arm themselves with what they need to clean the bow thruster motor. They find a 20 litre drum of Drew Electric cleaner and put some into a bucket, get a couple of brushes and a compressed-air spray gun with a one litre reservoir. They’re not worried about the Drew Electric cleaner because the label says it’s safe: “safe (non-flammable)”


It also, however, warned: “(Do) not breath vapor or mist – use adequate ventilation”

The other bit of equipment they need is a small portable fan because the only ventilation in the bow thruster compartment is a fan intended to keep the bow thruster motor cool but it only operates when the main engine is running, which it isn’t.

They go down a hatch into the forecastle space then climb down through another hatch into the bow thruster room. Hans and Jan remove the cover of the electric motor and get to work. At 1200 they take a break for lunch then return to the bow thruster compartment.





As they work, the bow thruster compartment fills with fumes. Then Hans sees that something is wrong with Jan. At 1400 Hans alerts Frank in the wheelhouse – Jan is in trouble.

Frank alerts the crew, tells them to get breathing apparatus from the fireman’s outfit, calls shore to tell them someone’s in trouble, and rushes down towards the forecastle space. Tam, the assistant engineer is already there, alerted by Hans’s calls, he can smell the fumes of the Drew Electric cleaner.

Tam helps Hans out of the bow thruster compartment towards the forecastle space hatch. Hans, dizzy, not thinking clearly takes a few gulps of the contaminated air and heads back into the bow thruster compartment, followed by Tam.

Jan is sitting astride the bow thruster casing. Hans and Tam try to reach him, but the fumes are too strong, they have to back off as Jan, unconscious topples into the bilge.

Hans and Tam make it out of the compartment. Hans can hardly breathe but he’s determined to save Jan. He takes a few gulps of air near the forecastle space hatch and goes back into the bow thruster compartment.

Hans’s luck has run out. He can’t save Jan and, unable to climb out of the bow thruster compartment, he can’t save himself.

One crewman arrives with the breathing apparatus, others come with a rope for the rescue. Frank enters the forecastle space, helps Tam into the breathing apparatus and rushes back to the wheelhouse to alert the shore that two men are now in trouble. Its now about 1430.

Meanwhile, Tam attempts to reach Hans and Jan, but his mask isn’t fitted properly and the fumes are getting to him. He returns to the forecastle space to adjust the mask but, back in the bow thruster compartment, the fumes still get through the mask.

He tries again. At the bottom of the ladder he sees Hans trying to climb out of the compartment but collapse.

Again he tries to reach the downed men, but the fumes are too strong. Other members of the crew grab masks used when fumigating the livestock pens but the masks don’t work against the fume, several start vomiting.

The Darwin pilot boat arrives with fire and ambulance service personnel but their breathing equipment is too bulky to get down to the bow thruster compartment. They call the shore for compressed air, filters and a reel of air hose. It isn’t until 1552 that they can get down into the compartment.

At 1623, nearly two and a half hours after the first alert from Hans, his body was brought out. At 1649, Jan’s body was brought out.

How could something labeled safe kill two men and have such a powerful effect on those who tried to save them? The killer was the electrical cleaning fluid which was mainly 1.1.1. tricholoethane. It was labelled safe because it was non-flammable. It has a narcotic effect, dizziness, headache and fatigue. The amount available in the bow thruster compartment of the Zebu Express was enough to make breathing difficult, cause unconsciousness and death through asphyxiation.

But what put the power of death into its hands were the men themselves. They didn’t follow the correct procedures. If they’d followed the rules, I wouldn’t be telling you this story.

How do you avoid being a victim? First, don’t assume that because something says it’s safe it is safe, especially in enclosed spaces. Make sure there’s proper ventilation. Hans and Jan used a portable fan to keep themselves cool but it wasn’t ventilating the compartment, it wasn’t removing the bad air and pulling in the good air.

Test the air before you go in and test it regularly afterwards. Just because it’s good at 1100 it doesn’t mean its safe at 1400.

Keep a crewman on safety watch outside the point of entry, with a radio or a means of communication, because when things go wrong they go wrong quickly, maybe too quickly for you to get out in time.

Keep rescue equipment beside the point of entry because seconds can count.

Do you really know how to use the breathing apparatus on your ship? Tam was certainly courageous, but he couldn’t do much to save Hans and Jan because he didn’t know how to use the breathing equipment.

The official report says that, because of the effects of the fumes, Hans probably wasn’t thinking clearly when he went back into the bow thruster compartment to save Jan. I’d like to think that his judgment was clouded by the natural instinct to save the life of another human being.

If you’re going to go into an enclosed space without the proper equipment or preparation then dig two graves. One for you, and one for the guy who’s going to try and save you.

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This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe sailing

Official ATSB Report








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