INVESTIGATION REPORTS - DETAIL
Report No 38
||SOUTH CHINA SEA
In the early hours of 30 November 1991, while on a positioning
voyage from Singapore to Cebu City in the Philippines, the Australian registered
fishing vessel Northern L caught fire. The six crew were unable to fight the
fire and abandoned the vessel in approximate position latitude 8 degrees 03
minutes North, longitude 118 degrees 34 minutes East, taking with them an
emergency radio and the vessel's 406mHz emergency position indicator radio
beacon (EPIRB). At about 0500 explosions were heard coming from the vessel,
which sank shortly after.
At sunrise the crew took stock of their surroundings and activated
the vessel's EPIRB.
At about 0830, the Australian Marine Rescue Coordination Centre
received a distress alert from the United States MRCC, Washington that a distress
beacon belonging to the Australian registered fishing boat had been detected
in position 8 degrees 02 minutes North 118 degrees 33 minutes East.
These details were passed to Westpac MRCC in Japan, and Manila
MRCC in the Philippines.
At 1130 (UTC+8) the Liberian registered tanker Nagasaki Spirit,
en route from Dulang, Malaysia, to Santan, Indonesia, was requested by Westpac
MRCC to proceed to a position 08 degrees 03.3 minutes North and 118 degrees
34.3 minutes East to investigate the EPIRB signal. At 1245 the Nagasaki Spirit
sighted an orange canopy and by 1340 the six survivors had been taken on board
The master of the Northern L (a Philippine national), the mate
(an Indian national) and the two engineers (both Indonesian nationals) were
landed in Santan. The two Australian crew remained with the Nagasaki Spirit
until the ship arrived off Brisbane on 14 December.
- The circumstances described and without evidence to the contrary it
is concluded that the loss of the vessel was due to fire and the unrestricted
flooding of the engine-room and the adjacent spaces below the main deck.
- It is concluded that the fire originated in the engine-room.
It is not possible to determine with certainty the cause of the fire or
the reason for the sinking. However, the most likely cause may be attributed
to the escape of diesel oil from a fractured fuel line spraying on to
a hot machinery surface, igniting the oil and causing intense heat in
the confined spaces of the engine-room. Fuel from the bunker fed the fire.
- The outbreak of fire occurred while the engine-room was
unattended. Had the person on watch been in the engine-room the fire would
have been detected at an early stage and therefore it is probable that
it could have been controlled and extinguished.
- The supply of air to the fire and the fire's rapid unrestrained
spread were the direct result of the engine-room not being isolated from
the spaces either side of it or above it. It was accepted practice on
board to operate with all doors, watertight or not, open.
- Access to the remote controls to the engine-room fuel
supply, the vessel's ventilation units and the engine-room CO2 fire smothering
system was cut off by the fire, due to the engine-room not being secured
and the access to the engine-room at frame 51 being open.
- It is not possible to determine the source or sources
of the explosions reported by the survivors. It is possible that the explosions
were as a result of the rupturing of pressure vessels and/or the fuel
in the tanks being heated to a level whereby the oil's flash point was
- Whatever the level of proficiency of the master and crew,
the absence of any water on the fire main, compounded by the inability
to secure any breathing apparatus, rendered the crew totally unable to
fight the fire. Evacuation of the vessel to await the outcome of the fire
was their only option.
- The quality of the operational procedures and standards
practised (or not practised) aboard the Northern L created the conditions
in which accidents were more likely to occur, and where emergencies were
more likely to get out of hand.
- The position of the controls for the remote shutting down
of the fuel supply from engine-room fuel tanks and the release of the
engine-room CO2 fire smothering system were in accordance with the relevant
legislation, notwithstanding that on this occasion access to them was
cut off by the fire. However, their position within the enclosed main
deck was not an optimum position, given the construction of the upper
deck at conversion.
- If the engine-room door at frame 51 had been removed,
or was left open as a standard practice, the remote stops for ventilation
and engine-room pumps were positioned contrary to the regulations.
- The controls for the watertight doors were not above the
bulkhead deck, as required by the regulations.
- The diesel gas oil shipped in Singapore was within the
- The liaison in 1989, between the Department of Transport
and Communications, and subsequently the Australian Maritime Safety Authority,
and the American Bureau of Shipping was deficient in ensuring that the
converted vessel met the letter or spirit of the Australian regulations
in respect of fire control and subdivision.