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On 7 August 1997, the Taiwanese flag bulk carrier Ming Mercy was lying at the anchorage off the port of Port Kembla, New South Wales. It had completed a voyage in ballast from Taichung, Taiwan, and was preparing to load a cargo of 58,200 tonnes of Australian coal for the return voyage to Taichung.

At about 1030 that morning, a fire was discovered on the lower bridge deck by the crew. The fire rapidly gained a hold and filled the accommodation and the bridge with thick, black smoke. In an early attempt to tackle the fire, the Messboy was burned and suffered a broken ankle.

An inbound passing vessel noticed smoke rising from the accommodation of Ming Mercy and notified the Port Kembla Signal Station. The pilot launch was sent to Ming Mercy to investigate and, on arrival, learned of the fire. The shore authorities were notified by the pilot launch and, at 1125, the tug Korimul left Port Kembla with the first team of 13 firefighters from the NSW Fire Brigades. After some difficulty boarding Ming Mercy with all their equipment, via the pilot ladder, they commenced firefighting operations at 1232, entering the accommodation in an attempt to locate the seat of the fire.

A helicopter was despatched to Ming Mercy and, after landing on the hatch covers, flew the injured Messboy to Wollongong hospital. Hampered by intense heat from the bulkheads and steel decks, the fire brigade was unable to prevent the fire from spreading upwards to the upper bridge deck. Due to the heat, firefighters had to work in relays of 20 minutes. The weather deteriorated and, to enable relief crews of firefighters to be exchanged on Ming Mercy, another helicopter was employed running a shuttle service. With the aid of a thermal imaging camera, the fire was eventually brought under control at 1928 and, at 2045, the fire was reported as out.

The forward end of the lower and upper bridge decks was severely damaged by the fire. The bridge suffered extensive smoke damage and buckling of the steel deck. All navigation, control and communications equipment was rendered unserviceable through damage to electrical cables in the decks beneath.

Notable features of the incident were a lack of communication between the ship's officers and the Fire Brigades, due to language difficulties, the absence of any fire detection system aboard the vessel, very sub-standard additional electrical wiring installed in accommodation spaces and the fire-retardant effectiveness of timber and plywood used for the construction of bulkheads within the accommodation.

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

Conclusions

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. It is concluded that:

  1. The fire started in the forward part of the 1st Engineer's dayroom on the lower bridge deck, then spread upwards to the upper bridge deck.
  2. It was not possible to positively identify the source of ignition as the intensity of the fire was such that little physical evidence remained.
  3. The remains of 'amateur' wiring extensions, however, found in the 1st Engineer's dayroom, and examples of such wiring observed in many other accommodation spaces, indicate a distinct possibility that the source of the fire was electrical.
  4. There was no policy in place aboard the vessel for vetting additional wiring and extensions installed in crew accommodation spaces.
  5. The lack of a fire detection system enabled the fire to gain a strong hold before it was detected by the crew.
  6. The use of combustible materials in the accommodation, together with the apparently limited effectiveness of the fire-retardant timber used in bulkheads, facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.
  7. A limited understanding of English led to language difficulties between the Taiwanese and Filipino officers and crew, both in raising the alarm when the fire was discovered and in communication between the ship's staff and the NSW Fire Brigades once the latter had arrived on board.

It is further considered that the NSW Fire Brigades, under very difficult circumstances, successfully fought a fire that had reached a stage where it was well beyond the firefighting resources of the vessel. It was indeed fortunate that Ming Mercy was within reach of shore assistance and also that the pilot launch was nearby, attended the vessel and was able to summon assistance from ashore.

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General details
Date: 07 August 1997 Investigation status: Completed 
 Investigation type: Occurrence Investigation 
Location:Port Kembla  
State: New South Wales  
Release date: 16 December 1998 Occurrence category: Serious Incident 
Report status: Final Highest injury level: Serious 
 
Vessel details
Vessel: Ming Mercy 
Flag: Taiw 
IMO: 3026919 
Type of Operation: Bulk Carrier 
Damage to Vessel: Substantial 
Departure point:Taichung, Taiwan
Destination:Port Kembla, New South Wales
 
Injuries
 CrewPassengerGroundTotal
Serious: 1001
Total:1001
 
 
 
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Last update 19 May 2016