Fire on MV Martha’s Vineyard downplayed to board

SSA’s ‘failure to adequately investigate’ burning generator aftermath criticized.

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The MV Martha’s Vineyard suffered a fire that was detailed in the recently released HMS Consulting report.

A St. Patrick’s Day 2018 generator incident aboard the MV Martha’s Vineyard previously characterized as an electric discharge has since been called a fire by the Steamship Authority and the independent consultant it hired.

At a March 20, 2018, meeting, the SSA board was told “a wire on one of the newly installed ship service generators came loose and began to arc …” However, since the HMS Consulting report release in December, the SSA confirmed as accurate what the report calls “a fire in a machinery space,” among other descriptions. The Steamship Authority board voted to seek an independent consultant last summer after a string of spring mechanical and communication fiascos incensed Vineyarders. The board selected HMS out of a field of eight contenders.

The fire aboard the Martha’s Vineyard happened while the vessel was docked in Woods Hole. A generator wire that emitted electric arcs is believed to be its cause.

“The arcing wire incident caused a small fire that damaged Generator No. 3 while the vessel was in the slip at Woods Hole and, following the incident, the crew put Generators 1 and 2 online and restored the power plant,” SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll wrote in an email. “Following clearance from USCG, the vessel was allowed to proceed based on the availability of the other two generators. The captain was fully aware of the circumstances of the incident.”

The Falmouth Fire Department was not informed, Driscoll wrote. The department wasn’t needed, he added, because an oiler and the chief engineer dealt with the problem.

Not long after the fire, the vessel suffered a blackout while making its last crossing of the night between Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole, and subsequently sat crippled on the edge of Vineyard Haven Outer Harbor for hours. During that time, neither Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling nor Tisbury Harbormaster John Crocker nor Tisbury Emergency Manager Eerik Meisner were informed by the SSA it had a vessel in distress off the Vineyard, or what the condition of the passengers might be when and if it made it to Vineyard Haven.

While the U.S. Coast Guard cleared the Martha’s Vineyard to leave port after the fire, the HMS report doesn’t cast blame on them. Rather, it accuses the SSA of relying solely on the Coast Guard’s green light, and not on examinations it should have conducted itself.

“After the crew extinguished the fire and restored power to the plant by placing Generators No. 1 and No. 2 online in parallel, the USCG was notified of the incident,” the HMS report states. “The USCG issued a CGForm835 identifying a deficiency for Generator No. 3, but allowed the vessel to return to service based on the availability of two working generators and the assumption that all other systems were operating normally. In fact, the vessel was not operating normally. In addition to undetected damage to certain systems, fuel was being depleted from the service tank but not being refilled from the storage tank because the fuel transfer pump had not been restarted.”

The report goes on to state the fire appears to have caused switchboard damage. Other mechanical issues were also at play ahead of the blackout.

“The SSA’s failure to adequately investigate the matter allowed the vessel to be returned to service with unidentified damage to the switchboard, and operational limitations that led to another blackout. This example and others suggest that the SSA’s only salient criterion for determining when a vessel is ‘ready’ to be returned to service is the USCG’s permission to return it to service, and that no practical assessment of the risks is performed in the aftermath of such incidents.”

The fire is one of numerous incidents, glitches, and mishaps that befell the Martha’s Vineyard after it returned from an $18 million midlife overhaul at Senesco Marine in North Kingston, R.I.