Australian Antarctic Division, ship operator, lashed in ATSB report into 2021 Everest fire at sea
A report into the fire onboard an Australian Antarctic Division (AAD)-contracted ship has found it was unprepared for the conditions of the Southern Ocean, and if a rescue had been needed "a successful outcome was far from assured".
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau's (ATSB) final report into the fire at sea on MPV Everest on April 5, 2021 also found a key crew member was so fatigued it resulted in a "lapse in attention" which meant a fuel overflow went "undetected".
The multi-purpose vessel was contracted from Singapore-based company Fox Offshore by the AAD in 2021 due to delays in the delivery of its new icebreaker, the Nuyina.
Everest had left Mawson Station in Antarctica and was on its way to Hobart, 5,475 kilometres away, when a fire broke out in the port side engine room.
Along with the crew, there were 72 AAD staff on board.
The ATSB report found at the time of the fire, the chief engineer "had probably been awake for about 25–30 hours".
"This would almost certainly have impacted the chief engineer's performance and would have contributed to fatigue-related errors."
The report noted Everest had a multi-national crew of 37 from 12 countries, including Polish, Dutch, Russian, Finnish, Latvian, Estonian, and Indonesian nationals, in numbers that "exceeded the requirements in the ship's minimum safe manning document".
The ATSB said it was the shipmaster's "first time working with Fox Offshore and also their first time on board MPV Everest".
Also noted was the voyage being the chief mate, first mate, and ice pilot's "first time on board Everest and their first time working in the Antarctic".
It was also the chief engineer's "first time working with Fox Offshore, their first time on board Everest, and their first time working in polar waters and in ice".
The report referenced an inspection of Everest by Australian Maritime Safety Authority officers upon the ship's return to Hobart following its first voyage to Antarctica in February 2021 — two months before the fire — which "did not identify any deficiencies" in equipment or procedures.
The ATSB investigation found that during a "routine fuel transfer operation" on the morning of 5 April, Everest's port fuel oil settling tank overflowed into the port engine room exhaust ventilation casing and the port engine room below, with the "overflowing fuel either contacting a hot surface within the casing or igniting due to electrostatic discharge, with the latter being more likely".
The investigation identified Everest's chief engineer, who was conducting the fuel transfer, as "experiencing a level of fatigue known to have an adverse effect on performance and probably experienced a lapse in attention which resulted in the manual fuel transfer not being monitored and in the tank overflowing, undetected".
The investigation found a number of factors, including deficient protocols and non-compliant equipment, contributed to the event.
It also noted after an alarm sounded, a crew member "acknowledged" it, meaning they silenced it, "without investigating its significance or notifying the chief engineer".
The report found this was because "fuel tank" and "ballast tank high-level audible alarms" were frequently generated, "particularly when the ship was rolling".
Officials at the Australian Antarctic Division were left scrambling after a decision to block RSV Nuyina from transiting the Tasman Bridge and refuelling close to port, with the true cost of a 660km detour now revealed.
The report said two of the designated firefighters on board refused to fight the fire "reportedly due to concern for their personal safety".
Other concerns included several losses of power during the event, which resulted in a "loss of the communication system" on board, and the ship's master incorrectly believing the fire-extinguishing system was a carbon dioxide system instead of water mist.
After burning for two and a half hours, the chief engineer, electro-technical officer, and a volunteer AAD firefighter entered the engine room and extinguished the fire.
Following an assessment of the damage to the port engine room, the decision was made to make for Fremantle, rather than Hobart, due to the loss of propulsion — with "storm force winds, very rough seas" of "significant wave height" and "heavy swells" predicted over the course of the journey, the ATSB report said.
After slowing or stopping several times for running repairs, Everest made Fremantle on April 13 — eight days after the fire.
The fire resulted in "two AAD watercraft being destroyed on deck along with some other associated equipment", as well as "substantial damage to the port engine room including to machinery, fixtures, wiring, and electrical enclosures" of Everest, the report said.
ATSB chief commissioner Angus Mitchell said while there was no reported injuries or pollution the fire "did leave the ship and its 109 personnel in a precarious situation …  in some of the harshest and least-forgiving oceans on the planet, with the nearest vessel able to provide assistance many days away".
He said, while not contributing to the fire itself, Everest managers "had not ensured the ship was appropriately manned, equipped or prepared for the hazards and challenges for operations in the Southern Ocean or Antarctica".
He said the AAD's chartering process was "ineffective" in assessing Everest's suitability for work in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.
In a statement the AAD said it had accepted all of the findings" of the ATSB report and had "initiated a number of changes in the way it identifies, engages and manages charter arrangements".
"The safety of our expeditioners and crew has always been, and continues to be our utmost priority, and the safety precautions on vessels chartered for use by the AAD are constantly being reviewed and updated in line with world's best practice," the AAD said.
The ATSB report comes in a difficult year for the AAD, with it dealing with a Hobart harbour master safety ruling resulting in its icebreaker having to travel to Burnie to refuel, a funding shortfall, staff resignations and a fallout from an internal staff culture review.
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