NTSB Cites Poor Safety Culture in Caribbean Fantasy Fire Investigation

Coast Guard and other assets respond to the Caribbean Fantasy off the coast of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, August 17, 2016. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

“The Caribbean Fantasy had been detained 3 times in the years immediately before the fire, yet no red flags went up,” commented NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the fire aboard the roll-on/roll-off car and passenger ferry Caribbean Fantasy was caused by leaking fuel that contacted a hot surface in the ship’s engine room.

The fire occurred on August 17, 2016, as the ferry was underway off San Juan, Puerto Rico with more than 500 people on board. The Master gave the order to abandon ship, prompting a major search and rescue operation.

The probable cause was determined during an NTSB meeting on the incident on Tuesday.

Contributing to the fire’s rapid spread were quick-closing valves for fuel and lube oil that were intentionally blocked open, according to the investigation. The NTSB also found that fixed firefighting systems and a structural fire boundary failed.

Also contributing to the fire and a subsequent prolonged abandonment effort was Baja Ferries’ poor safety culture and ineffective implementation of its safety management system on board the Caribbean Fantasy, the NTSB found.

Adding to the severity of the fire was the failure of the Panama Maritime Authority and the recognized organization, RINA Services, to ensure the safety management system was functional.

See Also: Caribbean Fantasy Fire Damage Photos

The fire started in the main engine room of the 614-foot long, Panamanian-flagged vessel, when fuel spraying from a leaking flange contacted the hot surface of the port main engine. The fire could not be contained, and the master ordered abandon ship.

The fire burned for three days while the vessel, used for ferry service between Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Juan and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, drifted and subsequently grounded near the port of San Juan. The fire was extinguished by shore-based firefighters after the Caribbean Fantasy was towed into the harbor.

All 511 passengers and crew aboard were rescued and 45 people were treated for non-life-threatening injuries including knee, ankle and leg injuries, fainting, breathing difficulties and other issues. Only six injuries – ankle injuries incurred while sliding down the marine evacuation system – were considered serious.

The accident resulted in an estimated $20 million in damage and the Caribbean Fantasy was eventually scrapped in lieu of repairs.

As a result of the investigation, the NTSB issued safety recommendations to the to the U.S. Coast Guard, Baja Ferries S.A. de C.V., RINA Services S.p.A, the International Association of Classification Societies, and the Panama Maritime Authority.

The recommendations address machinery maintenance practices, fuel and lube oil quick-closing valves, fire protection, crew training on and familiarity with emergency systems and procedures, implementation of the company’s safety management system, and oversight by Panama.

“The recommendations that we issued today, if acted upon, will improve marine safety,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “I urge the recipients to act on these recommendations so that this fortunately non-fatal fire is not remembered as the dress rehearsal for a future tragedy.”

The synopsis, findings and all recommendations related to the accident are available online at https://goo.gl/4azkER

The full report will be available in a few weeks on the NTSB website.