Marine safety investigations & reports

Fire on board BBC Rhonetal Port Hedland, Western Australia on 25 March 2021

Investigation number:
Status: Completed
Investigation completed
Phase: Final report: Dissemination Read more information on this investigation phase


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What happened

In the early hours of 25 March 2021, a fire broke out in the lower cargo hold of the general cargo ship BBC Rhonetal while it was alongside Port Hedland number two berth. The fire started during hot work to remove sea fastenings from the tween deck in preparation for cargo discharge operations.

Immediate efforts by the crew to extinguish the fire with deck hoses were unsuccessful and all persons safely evacuated the area before the hatch covers were closed and carbon dioxide using the ship’s fixed fire extinguishing system was released into the cargo hold.  Shoreside fire authorities responded to the emergency and monitored the situation until the fire was declared extinguished on the morning of 28 March.     

What the ATSB found

The ATSB found that the risk of fire had not been adequately assessed by the crew prior to commencement of the hot work. As a result, a continuous fire watch was not maintained and proper precautions were not taken to sufficiently protect vulnerable cargo from catching alight. 

The ATSB also found that BBC Rhonetal’s managers had not effectively implemented the shipboard safety management system procedures to prevent the fire, which was the tenth such fire on a ship managed under the same parent company in the past 14 years, and the fourth investigated by the ATSB, identifying similar contributing factors.

What has been done as a result

BBC Rhonetal’s managers advised the ATSB that shipboard procedures for hot work will be amended to better describe the fire watch role, emphasising its importance in fire prevention. Fire watch requirements will be integrated into the hot work permit procedure and additional equipment for the fire watch is to be distributed across the fleet. The company also intends to educate ship crews on the amended procedures and the additional equipment through a training video with shore-based staff further reiterating safe hot work practices during shipboard inspections.  

The ATSB considers that the proposed safety action has the potential to address the safety issue concerning the hot work procedures. However, as no timeline for implementation was provided, the ATSB issued formal recommendations to BBC Rhonetal’s managers, and the parent company, that the proposed safety action be implemented across their fleets.

Safety message

The continuing incidence of fires in the cargo holds of ships while performing hot work highlights the importance of adhering to shipboard procedures and recognised safe work guidelines for hot work.

Ship operators and managers must ensure that their safety management system protocols for hot work are suitable and properly implemented on board their ships. This requires regular verification that ships’ crew understand and follow prescribed safe work practices for hot work.

Download Final report
[Download  PDF: 1.48MB]

The occurrence


Safety analysis


Safety issues and actions


Sources and submissions

Australian Transport Safety Bureau


The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is investigating a fire on board the general cargo ship 'BBC Rhonetal'  at Port Hedland, Western Australia, on 25 March 2021.

At 0330 WST, during cargo discharge operations from the ’tween deck of number 2 cargo hold, smoke was seen coming from the lower hold. Just prior to this, hot work had been undertaken to remove cargo securing points from around the cargo to be discharged. Efforts to extinguish the fire using ship's fire fighting resources laid out for the hot work were unsuccessful. The intensity of the smoke overcame personnel in the hold who evacuated to deck.

An emergency was called and crew mustered while stevedores evacuated to shore. Shore authorities, including the fire brigade, were notified. As the situation escalated, the hatch cover was closed and the ship's carbon dioxide fixed fire fighting system was released into the cargo hold. Three harbour tugs stood by the ship and applied water over the deck to boundary cool the area.

The temperature of the ship's deck was monitored over the following hours. By 1600, the temperature had stabilised, boundary cooling was stopped and ventilation of the site commenced. The cargo hold was opened up and at 1200 on 28 March control of the site was handed back to the Pilbara Ports Authority.

As part of the investigation, investigators will interview directly involved parties and gather any other relevant evidence. 

A final report will be released at the conclusion of the investigation.

Should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties so appropriate safety action can be taken. 

Safety Issue

Go to MO-2021-002-SI-01 -

Safety Management System implementation

BBC Rhonetal’s managers had not effectively implemented the shipboard safety management system procedures in place to prevent the fire. This was the tenth such fire on a company ship in the past 14 years, and the fourth investigated by the ATSB, identifying similar contributing factors.

Safety issue details
Issue number: MO-2021-002-SI-01
Status: Open – Safety action pending
General details
Date: 25 March 2021   Investigation status: Completed  
Time: 0309 WST   Investigation level: Defined - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): Berth No.2, Port Hedland   Investigation phase: Final report: Dissemination  
State: Western Australia    
Release date: 21 September 2022   Occurrence category: Serious Incident  
Report status: Final   Highest injury level: None  

Vessel details

Vessel details
Operator BBC Chartering and Logistics  
Vessel BBC Rhonetal  
Flag Antigua and Barbuda  
IMO 9614701  
Sector Other  
Type of operation Commercial, project cargo  
Damage to vessel Minor  
Departure point Tianjin, People's Republic of China  
Destination Port Hedland, Australia  
Last update 21 September 2022