Boat fire prompts safety warnings after sea drama off Lowestoft

BACK THEN: Fire on board the 15m workboat, ECC Topaz, which was off Lowestoft. The three crew were rescued from their liferaft. Picture: SUPPLIED BACK THEN: Fire on board the 15m workboat, ECC Topaz, which was off Lowestoft. The three crew were rescued from their liferaft. Picture: SUPPLIED

Friday, March 21, 2014
8:49 AM

A fire that led to the sinking of a Lowestoft-based cataraman is most likely to have been caused by heat from an uninsulated exhaust pipe, according to a preliminary investigation into the incident.

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The ECC Topaz sinks. Photo: Sophy McCully RNLI LowestoftThe ECC Topaz sinks. Photo: Sophy McCully RNLI Lowestoft

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has begun an inquiry into the blaze on the 14m wind farm support vessel, ECC Topaz on January 14, which forced the three-man crew to flee the burning vessel and prompted a dramatic rescue operation.

According to the initial findings from the MAIB investigation, the most likely cause of the on-board blaze was “an uninsulated exhaust pipe from an air heater” close to the plywood structure of the vessel.

It states: “There is compelling evidence to suggest the source of the fire was in way of an uninsulated section of the exhaust pipe from a diesel-fired air heater that was situated in a compartment in the starboard hull, directly under the wheelhouse.

“The most likely cause of the fire was an uninsulated air heater exhaust pipe in close proximity of the plywood structure of the vessel.”

The ECC Topaz sinks. Photo: Sophy McCully RNLI LowestoftThe ECC Topaz sinks. Photo: Sophy McCully RNLI Lowestoft

The MAIB is set to publish a full report after completing its investigation, but it says evidence from similar vessels indicates that the incident was not an “isolated case” and it has published an industry-wide safety bulletin with advice to owners and operators.

It advises them to:

■Check that all exhaust pipes on their vessels are fully insulated and do not come close to combustible material;

■Fit fire/smoke detectors in enclosed spaces where diesel-fired air heaters are installed;

■Avoid placing flammable material in compartments that contain potential heat sources.

Highlighting its concerns, the MAIB report states: “A few days after the fire, the MAIB received information that crew on similar workboats had observed charring to the underside of main decks, where they were penetrated by the exhaust pipes from air heaters.”

The MAIB also draws attention to the efforts made to rescue the three crewmen from their liferaft after the workboat burst into flames 11 miles east of Lowestoft at about 12.30pm. Lowestoft Lifeboat, coastguard and an RAF helicopter from Wattisham were all involved.

“The three crew members on the vessel were unable to extinguish the fire, which spread rapidly throughout its structure, forcing them to abandon to a liferaft,” the report says.

“Once in the liferaft, the skipper transmitted a ‘Mayday’ call and then activated a Search and Rescue Transponder (SART). The crew of another vessel in the vicinity alerted the coastguard when they saw thick black smoke on the horizon.

“The crew of ECC Topaz were winched from the liferaft by helicopter and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. The fire on ECC Topaz continued unabated and, at 2.22pm, the burnt out remains of the vessel foundered in 33m of water.”

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