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Probe: Alabama barge blasts were result of careless tank cleaning

Dec 5, 2014 03:35 PM
Two barges burn at Mobile, Ala., as a result of explosions involving flammable vapors. Investigators said the April 2013 accident happened because the vapors ignited in a nearby towing vessel’s engine room.

Tad Denson

Two barges burn at Mobile, Ala., as a result of explosions involving flammable vapors. Investigators said the April 2013 accident happened because the vapors ignited in a nearby towing vessel’s engine room.

Two barges exploded in Mobile, Ala., when gasoline vapors venting from open tank hatches entered an adjacent vessel’s engine and ignited. Federal investigators said a cleanup company working on the barges should have done more to prevent the accident.

The explosion at Oil Recovery Co.’s (ORC) Gas-Freeing Terminal in Mobile occurred at about 2030 on April 24, 2013. It destroyed Kirby Inland Marine barges 28182 and 28194 and damaged Safety Runner, a 70-foot towing vessel operated by J. Russell Flowers Inc. Three people suffered serious burns.

“The probable cause of the fire and explosions involving towing vessel Safety Runner and Kirby barges 28182 and 28194 was the failure of the ORC facility to isolate tank-cleaning operations from sources of ignition,” the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report.

“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,” the report continued.

The barges arrived at the ORC facility for tank cleaning at 0030 on the morning of the explosion. The cleaning work began at about noon when two ORC employees boarded the barges and a third operated a vacuum truck. All cargo tanks and hatches were opened for the cleaning, allowing flammable vapors to escape. There were about 11 barrels of residual gasoline left in the barges. 

About eight hours later, the workers finished stripping the tanks and placed six pneumatic fans to air out the chambers. Between 2000 and 2030, a fan broke and workers shut down two dockside compressors while they looked into the problem. While one employee examined the fan, Safety Runner pulled into an adjacent berth to drop off a radio technician.

Safety Runner’s captain reported that he was not aware that tank cleaning was underway when he pulled in.

“The captain of the Safety Runner told investigators that shortly after the radio technician departed the vessel, Safety Runner’s main engines ‘started to run away,’” the report said, noting that gasoline vapors entered air intakes for the main diesel engine.

Efforts by the captain and crew to shut down the engines failed.

“The concentration of the vapors from the tank barges was high enough that it introduced additional fuel to power the engines, even though the vessel’s normal fuel supply had been cut off,” the report said.

Soon afterward, witnesses saw flames shooting from Safety Runner onto the Kirby barges. Several explosions followed and three workers were seriously burned, including the ORC worker who was trying to fix the fan. A deck hand aboard Safety Runner and the radio technician standing on land also were hurt.

Roughly 30 minutes after the blast, after first responders had already arrived, another explosion occurred. This one damaged a building and emergency vehicles and led to an evacuation of buildings within a mile of the barges. The fire ultimately burned for more than six hours.

Safety Runner’s engine was badly damaged, and investigators could not determine what sparked the fire, the report said. The two barges were declared a total loss. The accident caused about $5.7 million in damage.

“Investigators found evidence of inadequate management oversight by ORC, including employing a barge (supervisor) without proper credentials, and not having an operations manual that specifically addressed tank cleaning operations at the ORC facility,” the report said.

The company’s manual did not address hazards involving motor vessels docking while tank cleaning is occurring nearby, investigators found.

Matt Woodruff, Kirby’s director of public and government affairs, declined to comment on the accident, citing litigation.

AEP River Operations leases Safety Runner from J. Russell Flowers Inc. Melissa McHenry, an AEP River Operations spokeswoman, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. She confirmed that Safety Runner was repaired and is back in service.

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