A team of investigators on Thursday convened the first in a week-long series of hearings about the fire that destroyed the Spirit of Norfolk last spring — questioning some of the people directly involved with the ship’s inspection and technical repairs.
The hearing, led by Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials, revealed new details about issues the ship had in the weeks before the fire, and efforts to address them.
While the Spirit of Norfolk passed an inspection May 10 with no deficiencies of any kind noted, the ship lost propulsion due to a malfunction May 15, about three weeks prior to the fire. The vessel was issued a violation requiring it to resolve the problem prior to carrying passengers, according to Lt. Tom Whalen, one of the Coast Guard investigators who led much of the questioning Thursday. The issue was repaired and the ship was back to regular operations by May 18, when its port engine became inoperable.
Technicians with Bay Diesel, the company headquartered in Chesapeake hired to conduct repairs, recommended the cylinders and pistons in the ship’s engine be replaced. Additionally, Bay Diesel mechanic Stephen Hanna inspected the ship’s turbochargers with Charlie Wyatt when they found one had a buildup of “gunk,” which made them worry the sealant was ready to give way. The other turbocharger, which is used to increase the engine’s efficiency, did not have the same issue — but Hanna recommended both be replaced. Purchase orders show two turbochargers were ordered.
“We’re just trying to be preventative here,” Wyatt told investigators.
The vessel had 108 passengers for a lunchtime cruise June 7 on the Elizabeth River when a fire started in engine room. Of those, 89 were children — some were holding a party to celebrate the end of the school year. No one was injured, but the boat burned for nearly five days before the fire could be fully extinguished; it was deemed a total loss.
No determination has been made about the cause of the fire, and it’s unclear when the findings will be finalized. Brian Vaughn with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will testify Tuesday about the ATF’s forensic analysis into the fire’s cause and origin, according to a summary of witnesses’ testimony provided to The Virginian-Pilot.
The investigation is being conducted to determine causing factors of the fire, examine the response, and identify any other information that can improve maritime safety.
The questions posed Thursday by investigators explored the qualifications of those who conducted the inspection in May, the state of the engine room before the fire and the work technicians did on the ship’s turbocharger and why.
Another area of concern highlighted Thursday was the state of the engine room the day before the fire. A picture taken June 6 shows a cardboard box tucked under the front end of one of the engines and other boxes in close proximity, which could create a fire hazard, according to Chris O’Neal, a marine inspector training officer for the Coast Guard. O’Neal and Lt. Cmdr. Kate Newkirk, who leads inspections for Sector Virginia, testified that this would’ve been noted as a deficiency in their inspection May 10, but neither saw boxes in the engine room that day.
An animation showing the ship’s voyage describes events that immediately preceded the fire being noticed. A captain in training “brought engine throttles to clutch with the intent of splitting the throttle controls and executing a 180 degree turn to head back to Waterside Marina,” but when he began the maneuver, there was an alarm indicating the ship had “lost connection to the port main engine.”
When the captain attempted to re-engage the port engine, he suspected the ship had also lost the starboard engine, according to the animation. The captain then told the crew to check the engine room before seeing smoke coming from the aft port engine room vent.
The hearings are taking place in Virginia Beach City Council chambers and livestreamed at https://livestream.com/uscginvestigations/spiritofnorfolk. Testimony is scheduled to continue Friday and Saturday and into next week. Among those expected to testify over the next several days are Spirit of Norfolk staff and passengers, industry experts, marine mechanics, and leaders in the Coast Guard.
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