NTSB Determines Inadequate Planning Led to Loss of Commercial Processing Vessel

The commercial fish processor Aleutian Falcon prior to it being damaged by fire in Tacoma. Image: Trident Seafoods.

A report from the National Transportation Safety Board attributes a fire aboard a commercial fish processor docked at a shipyard in Tacoma, Washington to inadequate planning for “hot work.” The fire resulted in a loss exceeding $16 million. 

Marine Investigation Report 22/10, issued in March, stated that the fish processor Aleutian Falcon was docked for repairs at a Tacoma shipyard on Feb. 17, 2021, when the fire occurred. The Tacoma Fire Department managed to extinguish the fire after four days. No one was on board the vessel at the time of the fire and there were no injuries. 

However, an estimated 20-30 gallons of hydraulic oil leaked into the water and was captured by containment boom. The vessel was declared a total loss with an estimated value of nearly $16.5 million. 

The Aleutian Falcon was docked for maintenance and repair in anticipation of the 2021 processing season. NTSB officials said a section of corroded steel plating, on the bridge deck above the pantry, dry stores area and walk-in refrigerator, was being cropped and renewed. The job was considered “hot work” since tools used could produce sparks. 

Due to the location of the work, a marine chemist was brought on board to examine the area. The chemist issued a marine chemist certificate stipulating that the work must be completed “without penetrating” the bridge deck, indicating he either was not aware, wasn’t clearly informed of the full scope of the planned hot work, or he wrote the stipulation in error. 

The marine chemist certificate required all foam insulation within 12 inches of the area of planned hot work to be removed. The workers told investigators that they removed the foam insulation in the area of hot work. However, they did not remove a foam-filled wooden bulkhead separating the walk-in refrigerator space, adjacent to the pantry, which was combustible. 

The fire most likely started near the wooden bulkhead, located directly below the area where hot work had been completed for the day. The hot work would have produced sparks and slag that likely travelled from the deck above down to the wooden bulkhead, igniting the combustible materials in the area, as well as the bulkhead, and allowing for a smoldering fire to become established. 

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire was the company’s supervisory personnel inadequately planning for hot work, as well as shoreside workers’ inadequately protecting hot work areas, allowing slag from hot work to ignite combustible material near an insulated wooden bulkhead of a walk-in refrigerator that had not been removed or sufficiently protected. Contributing was the ineffective communication between the supervisory personnel, marine chemist, and workers.