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Carnival cruise ship blackout blamed on poor engine-room firefighting

Oct 1, 2013 12:04 PM
A tugboat tows Carnival Splendor into San Diego Bay after the cruise ship experienced a blackout in 2010. The incident began as an engine-room fire, and an investigator said the firefighting effort was hampered by delays and equipment deployment errors.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

A tugboat tows Carnival Splendor into San Diego Bay after the cruise ship experienced a blackout in 2010. The incident began as an engine-room fire, and an investigator said the firefighting effort was hampered by delays and equipment deployment errors.

A Carnival Corp. cruise ship carrying 4,466 people went dead in the water off Mexico in 2010 because a connecting-rod fracture sparked an engine fire that was allowed to get a stranglehold on the vessel’s wiring due to crew error and firefighting-equipment failure, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The 952-foot Carnival Splendor was towed to shore after the Nov. 8, 2010, blaze in the two-year-old vessel’s aft engine room led to a blackout. The Panamanian-flagged ship has six main engines, grouped inside two segregated engine rooms that are supposed to prevent a total power loss. The fire started at the No. 5 diesel generator as a result of a thrown rod.

In its report issued in July, the Coast Guard highlighted errors in the deployment of firefighting equipment, which was in poor condition to begin with. The engine compartment’s local Hi-Fog system wasn’t activated until 15 minutes after the fire started, the investigators found.

“This delay was the result of a bridge watchstander resetting the fire alarm panel on the bridge,” the report said. “This was a critical error which allowed the fire to spread to the overhead cables and eventually caused the loss of power.”

The initial trigger in the incident was an undetected hydrolock event and stress on the B1 connecting rod in the No. 5 generator. The piston assembly failed and the adjacent A1 rod was ejected from the crankcase. Technicians located the B1 rod and found it bent and broken in two pieces.

“The subject connecting rod failed by progressive fracture in the nature of high-cycle, low-stress fracture,” Carnival-contracted engineering firm Lucius Pitkin Inc. wrote. Referring to the exterior curve of the arch, the evaluators said the “fatigue crack most likely initiated as a result of increased surface stresses at the extrados after the connecting-rod shank was bent,” a condition that “was not present from the beginning of the diesel engine’s service life.”

Corrosion and rust were found in heat-exchanger components, and “the poor condition of the air cooler on the B side (of the generator) contributed to the hydrolock event,” the Coast Guard said. The investigators further wrote that Carnival had been aware that the air cooler system was poorly designed.

Scientists from Burgoyne Inc. determined that hot components flew from the cylinders, burning lube oil sprayed out and a pool fire sparked on floor plates. The amount of fire initially was about two-and-a-half times the size of a “large fabric living-room chair engulfed in flames.”

Because the Hi-Fog local fire-protection system was set on a 40-second delay and the bridge watchstander reset the alarm, the activation was delayed. By the time it was activated, the fire had spread to the cable runs. All primary electrical power was lost and none of the main generators could be restarted after that.   

“Since the Hi-Fog system was designed for local protection, the nozzles were positioned below the cable runs and the Hi-Fog system was not effective in suppressing or extinguishing the fire in the cable runs,” the Coast Guard report said.

Investigators said the firefighting effort was hampered by a lack of crew familiarity with the engine room, “poor isolation” of systems and maintenance of smoke boundaries, the use of dry chemical fire extinguishers instead of fire hoses and a captain’s decision to ventilate the engine room before the fire was fully out. The captain also failed to use water to cool the cables.

“It took fire teams approximately two hours to locate the fire in the cable runs,” the report said. “Once located, the fire teams attempted to extinguish it with CO2 and dry powder portable fire extinguishers. However, the fire was not fully controlled by these agents due to a lack of cooling of the cable conductors which held heat and caused the cable insulation and jacket materials to continue to burn.”

After five hours, the captain ordered the evacuation of the engine room in order to deploy the CO2 system. Both attempts to activate the CO2 — first remotely and then manually — failed.

“After pressurizing the CO2 system, numerous fittings and hose connections within the CO2 system leaked,” the investigators said. “In the end, no CO2 was released into the aft engine room.”

Seven hours after it had started, the fire was finally snuffed out because of a lack of oxygen resulting from the closure of watertight doors during the failed CO2 attempts.

The Coast Guard report stopped short of pinpointing a reason for the full blackout or the precise location of vulnerability.

“Due to the extensive damage to cables and wire from the fire, it was not possible to determine the exact cause of the power loss,” the investigators wrote. “However, the extent of the fire damage was significant enough to prevent vessel engineers from starting the forward engine room diesel generators and/or closing the appropriate breakers to supply power to the switchboard.”

As a result of the incident, the Coast Guard in 2011 issued two safety alerts urging the industry to maintain and inspect its fixed firefighting systems and to train crews in their proper care and deployment.

The Coast Guard investigated the casualty after being deemed a “substantially interested state” due to the Florida-based company’s sizable American operations and customer base. The 2013 report includes recommendations to Carnival Corp. and Lloyd’s Register to inspect the firefighting systems aboard all Dream-class cruise ships built at the Fincantieri shipyard in Genoa, Italy.

The report said Carnival has taken steps to rectify the problems with its fire-suppression systems. There is no longer a 40-second delay for automatic Hi-Fog activation, for example.

In a statement, Carnival said the 40-second delay “was originally designed to avoid false positive signals.”

Company executives said lessons learned from the Splendor failures led to improved firefighting responses during subsequent engine-room fires aboard other ships in the Carnival fleet. The company said it is spending $300 million on power upgrades that include “a reconfiguration of certain engine-related electrical components and rerouting of critical electrical cables.”

Carnival said it has created a marine safety department and a fire safety task force. The company has made changes to the testing and inspection of its CO2 system.

“We have reviewed all of our procedures and have reinforced our training at all levels for firefighting,” the statement said.

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