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On the morning of 13 May 1996, the 152,308 tonne dwt. Liberian flag bulk carrier Docebay was on ballast passage from Japan to Dalrymple Bay in Queensland. At 0400, the ship was at the position 1347.7' S, 153 56.8' E, approximately 500 nautical miles north-east of Townsville.

Shortly before 0400, the Second Engineer had left his cabin for his 0400-0800 watch in the engine room. At about 0405, the First Engineer, in the cabin adjacent to that of the Second Engineer, heard the sound of a fire and felt heat through their common bulkhead. He telephoned the engine room and the Second Engineer returned to his cabin, where, upon unlocking and opening the door, he was met by a blast of heat and black smoke. The ship's fire detection system went into alarm. The fire very quickly gained a hold in the cabin as the ship's crew started to tackle the fire from the Chief Engineer's cabin, at the forward end of the alleyway, and from the external door at the aft end of the alleyway. The ventilation was shut down and boundary cooling was applied to the decks above and below the Second Engineer's cabin.

At 0432 the Master broadcast a Mayday message which was received and acknowledged by the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra.

After 1 hours the fire was extinguished and the Mayday was cancelled. The fire had gutted the Second Engineer's cabin and caused extensive smoke damage to other areas on the same deck. Nobody had been injured during the incident.

The vessel anchored at Hay Point on 14 May before loading its cargo of 130,000 tonnes of coal for Praia Mole in Brazil.

Before the ship arrived at Hay Point, the cabin was completely cleaned out. This action, unfortunately, removed any evidence which would have assisted in determining the cause and origin of the fire. Nevertheless, the investigation revealed that in other cabins on the vessel there were electrical extensions, made up by crew members, to provide power from the scarce power points to televisions, VCRs and sound systems situated some distance from them.

Although the lack of available evidence prevented any conclusion being reached on the cause of the fire, an extension lead used in the Second Engineer's cabin, the construction of which would not meet Australian Standards, was suspected.

The incident was investigated by the Marine Incident Investigation Unit under the provisions of the Navigation (Marine Casualty) Regulations.


These conclusions identify the different factors which contributed to the circumstances and causes of the incident and should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organisation or individual.

The removal of the contents of the cabin, before the investigation started, prevented any definite conclusion being reached regarding either the point of origin or the cause of the fire.

With the lack of available evidence to indicate otherwise, the timing of the start of the fire and the Second Engineer's arising in the morning and leaving his cabin must be regarded as purely coincidental.

The fire took hold quickly and for this to have happened there must have been a supply of combustible materials near the source of the fire.

It is concluded that:

  1. The port after corner of the Second Engineer's cabin appears to have had the most significant concentration of combustible materials together with the television, VCR, and sound system all connected to a power board on an extension lead at this point. On balance of probability it is likely that the fire started in this area.
  2. The extension lead used would not meet Australian Standards, being unearthed, having below minimum size conductors, having no sheath and the power board being poorly made of flammable, non-impact-resistant plastic. In addition, the power points in the vessel, of American two-pin type, are not switched and therefore appliances cannot be totally isolated from the supply without withdrawing the plugs. This left the extension and power board live at all times.
  3. Although it cannot be stated conclusively, the most likely source of ignition would have been either a fault in the television set while in the 'stand by' condition or a short circuit in the power board of the extension lead.
  4. There was no policy in place on the ship for checking temporary wiring in cabins, installed by members of the crew, to ensure that it was electrically safe. It is understood that, since the fire, this is being addressed.
  5. On the evidence available it is unlikely that arson was the cause of the fire.
  6. The response of the ship's crew to the fire was quick and, on the whole, effective. The fire was well contained by the fire-fighting operations although it would have been better contained had the cabin door been kept closed at the beginning of the incident, until fire hoses had been rigged in place and a water curtain was available.
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