Engine lube oil leak that ignited was likely cause of fire on towing vessel

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a report on the September 12th 2018 incident in which a fire broke out aboard towing vessel Jacob Kyle Rusthoven (IMO 8851003) while it was pushing nine barges southbound on the Lower Mississippi River. The incident occurred at mile 673.8, about six miles north of West Helena, Arkansas.

The fire spread and three of the barges broke away from the tow. One of them rolled over and lost its cargo. All six crew members abandoned the vessel onto the barges, from where they were rescued. No pollution was reported but the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, valued at an estimated $1.5m, burned out.

With the barges arranged in three strings of three, the tow measured 680ft long by 105ft wide, including the towboat. The tow was travelling south on the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers en route to Baptiste Collette Bayou, Louisiana, where the cargo would be discharged. On September 12th at 02:41, during the pilot’s watch, the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven passed under the Hernando De Soto Bridge at mile 736.6. The pilot stated that at around this time the captain left the wheelhouse after having been there for about an additional three hours following his watch. Approximately three hours later, around 0530, the captain returned to the wheelhouse to relieve the pilot. According to the pilot, the captain mostly operated the engines running full ahead. Whenever the pilot relieved the captain while under way, he would pull back the rpm by at least 100 from the 1,050 operating at the time.

About 08:00 the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, with a following current, approached Mhoon Bend near mile 688. Entering Mhoon Bend, the captain attempted to flank the bend but lost control of the tow. He then backed hard astern to stop the tow. Nonetheless, the head of the tow struck the bank, causing the tow’s rigging to loosen. Later the captain of the Gabe Gattle observed smoke coming from the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven. As the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven passed the Bill Atkinson, the captain of the Bill Atkinson noticed smoke coming from the open starboard-side engine room door of the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven when the vessel was about abeam of his wheelhouse. The captain of the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven then broadcasted on the radio that his vessel was on fire and adrift.

The Jacob Kyle Rusthoven was destroyed in the fire, with only its forward and aft open decks left unburned. All documents and records kept on board the vessel burned in the fire, and the vessel was declared to be a total loss.

The emergency fuel oil shutoffs on both the port and starboard sides were found to have not been activated. Based on witness photos and video, all main deck access doors were open before and during the fire.

The fire was determined to have originated at or near the inboard turbocharger on the starboard-side main engine based on the heat damage at that location. A commercial forensics science firm found that a loose fitting on the lube oil supply line was the likely fuel source. It was likely that, when smoke first appeared, the lube oil in the line to the turbocharger was at or near its maximum operating pressure. The pressurized lube oil could have atomized from the loosened fitting and consequently come into contact with a hot surface on the starboard engine near the turbocharger. The atomized oil would have likely ignited and eventually spread the fire to adjacent combustible materials in the engine compartment, before spreading to the upper level.

The engines and generator(s) would have continued to supply lube oil and eventually fuel from any of the non-metallic fuel hoses and filters that failed as a result of fire exposure.

The Jacob Kyle Rusthoven was not fitted with a fixed firefighting system in the engine room, nor was it required to have one. By the time the mate reached a fire hose, the vessel had lost electrical power, and the fire pump in the main engine room where the fire began therefore was not operable. Although there was a semi-portable CO2 extinguisher inside the engine room on the upper deck, it was not of sufficient size to suppress the fire, due to the fire’s sustained fuel source and size.

The crew would also have had to enter a smoke-filled space for which they had no breathing apparatus or fire suits. Because the captain did not instruct the crew to activate the emergency fuel shutoff valves, and no one closed the main deck doors, the fire was able to spread rapidly. Additionally, the vessel was not fitted with a means to secure supply and exhaust ventilation to the engine room. With no means to fight the fire or manoeuvre the tow (due to loss of propulsion and steering), the captain’s order for the crew to abandon the drifting vessel to the barges was prudent.

The NTSB therefore determined that the probable cause of the engine room fire on board the towing vessel was an engine lube oil leak that ignited off a hot surface near the starboard main engine turbocharger. Contributing to the severity of the fire was the lack of crew measures to activate the engine fuel supply shutoffs and secure open doors ventilating the engine room.

1968-built, USA-flagged, 218 gt Jacob Kyle Rusthoven is owned by Rock Ridge Investments care of manager Graestone Logistics of Kentucky, USA.