Welders accidentally started fire on dry-docked Alaska ferry

REPORT: Blaze caused $750,000 in damages, fire department says.

Associated PressFebruary 20, 2012 

The Alaska state ferry Malaspina receives maintenance at Alaska Ship and Dry Dock Inc. in Ketchikan, Alaska, in May 2005.

MELISSA CAMPBELL / AP FILE PHOTO

KETCHIKAN -- A welder accidentally caused a $750,000 fire on the Alaska state ferry Malaspina, according to an investigation report by the Ketchikan Fire Department.

Alaska Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the ferry system has not calculated the exact amount of damage, but cleanup costs are estimated at about $300,000. The Ketchikan Fire Department said the Feb. 7 fire caused an estimated $750,000 in damage, according to the report obtained by the Ketchikan Daily News.

No one was injured when the fire broke out while the 372-foot ferry was in drydock at Ketchikan Shipyard. Fire authorities have said the fire occurred in a marine sanitation space, two decks below the car deck.

Alaska Ship and Drydock spokesman Doug Ward said the shipyard's insurance company also is investigating. Ward said no statement will be made until the U.S. Coast Guard finishes its investigation.

Ward characterized the fire department's report as opinion.

In the report, fire investigator James Kleinschmidt concluded the fire was caused by welding being done in a stateroom directly above the fire's location. A welder was working on a vent that passed from the marine sanitation room, the stateroom and up to the car deck.

The Malaspina was built in 1963 and is valued at $107.5 million, the report states.

An Alaska Ship and Drydock technical services director, Ray Cowan, showed Kleinschmidt areas where different types of work were performed, including the stateroom where welding had occurred the morning of the fire.

Alaska Ship and Drydock had a "hotwork" permit for the work, Kleinschmidt noted.

The permit was signed in early January and Cowan said work had been started at that time, then halted, and had started up again on the morning of the fire, according to the report.

"Mr. Cowan stated that the hotwork done in this space (Feb. 7) was probably stopped for lunch somewhere around 11:30 a.m., approximately 30 minutes prior to the fire being reported," the report states. "It was noted that the hotwork permit did not require the firewatch to remain after the work had stopped, which is a check box option on the permit form."

Kleinschmidt noted a strong smell of burnt rubber and plastic in the marine sanitation device room.

"Many rubber machine belts had been stored on the forward bulkhead, and many of these had burned completely," he wrote.

Overhead insulation was burned and crumbling, prompting asbestos warnings. Large rubber and plastic hoses became more severely damaged as they neared a forward bulkhead, Kleinschmidt wrote.

The report says no other possible sources of ignition were found in a process of elimination.

"No heat generating machinery had been operating in this area. No smoking materials had been permitted in this area. No oily rags had been stored in the area."

Woodrow, the Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman, said the ship was undergoing maintenance at the shipyard. The fire is being investigated internally, he said.

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