On June 2, 1973, the containership C.V. Sea Witch collided with the tanker Esso Brussels, sparking a catastrophic fire.
Fires aboard containerships occur more often than the industry likes to admit. However, this is not a new trend, but rather a continuation of a horror that dates to the dawn of containerization and made more dramatic due to the size and capacity of the bigger ships involved.
Earlier this year, one of the largest and newest containerships, the Maersk Honam, sustained a severe fire that resulted in the deaths of four crewmen while transiting the Indian Ocean. Two weeks later, while the Honam continued to burn, another ship, the Maersk Kensington, sustained a fire in one of her holds.
The first major fire on a cellular containership occurred aboard the C.V. Sea Witch on June 2, 1973. Over time there have been many similar tragedies. Among the more recent include the Hanjin Pennsylvania, DG Harmony, Hyundai Fortune, MSC Flaminia, APL Austria, MSC Daniela, Eugen Maersk, Aconcagua and Hansa Brandenburg, to name a few. In April, it was reported that a serious fire aboard a containership now happens once every 60 days, on average.
A seafarer’s greatest fear is a shipboard fire, and every year, ships are lost and seafarers are injured or killed when these events occur. The causes of these fires may result from a collision, as in the case of the Iranian tanker with its 32 crewmen that burned on Jan. 6, 2018, the cargo or the ship’s machinery. Most of the time the public is only informed when a fire occurs on a cruise ship, or there is a large loss of life or severe environmental damage.
Americans first became aware of the horror of shipboard fires when the world’s largest clipper ship, the Great Republic, burned at a New York City pier on Dec. 20, 1853. The ship was built in Boston and sailed to New York to prepare for its maiden voyage to Liverpool. A fire broke out in a nearby bakery and quickly spread to the Great Republic and two other sailing ships tied up on Front Street. The three ships were built of wood and loaded with combustible cargoes, such as cotton and tobacco. With their wooden spars, manila rope rigging, much of it tarred, the ships burned like torches for days and eventually sank at their berths. The Great Republic was insured for $300,000 and its cargo was insured for a similar amount.
Before the age of the containership, the most hazardous cargoes were cotton, fishmeal, turpentine, sulfur and various chemicals. However, the most common cause for shipboard fires was careless cigarette smoking and portable lights, (known as cluster lights) left burning after the cargo operations had ceased in the under-deck spaces.
Over time, fires and explosions in seaports and aboard ships occurred regularly, serving as constant reminders of one of the hazards endured by those of us engaged in maritime transportation. In addition to the Great Republic, other noteworthy ship fires during the past century and a half include:
- 1865 – Sultana burns near Memphis
- 1900 – German liners burn at Hoboken, N.J.
- 1913 – Alum Chine explodes at Hawkins Point, Baltimore
- 1917 – Halifax fire and explosion caused by ship collision
- 1934 – Morro Castle burns off Asbury Park, N.J.
- 1942 – USS Lafayette (formerly Normandie) burns at New York
- 1943 – El Estero burns and explodes at New York
- 1944 – Fort Stikene and 17 other ships burn at Bombay, India
- 1944 – Quinault Victory explodes at Port Chicago, Calif.
- 1947 – Grandcamp burns and explodes at Texas City
- 1947 – Ocean Liberty burns and explodes at Brest, France
- 1972 – Seawise University (formerly Queen Elizabeth) burns at Hong Kong
- 1972 – Oriental Warrior burns off Jacksonville, Fla.
- 1973 – Sea Witch and Esso Brussels collide and burn at New York
As the age of the containership progressed, the number of the risks and reasons for maritime disasters decreased. More marine terminals were located in remote areas, away from population centers: Port Newark, Baytown, and Los Angeles/Long Beach come to mind. Hundreds of longshoremen would no longer be required to work in the cargo holds of the tween deck ships. For the most part, the ship’s cargo gear would no longer be required to load and discharge each draft of cargo. Thus, life on the waterfront, and aboard ship, became much safer.
Although the overall safety record of maritime transportation was greatly improved, disasters and loss of life still happen.
On June 2, 1973, the C.V. Sea Witch, owned by American Export-Isbrandtsen Line, was sailing from the Port of New York, to Norfolk, Va., and then to northern Europe. The Sea Witch and its two sister ships were built from the keel up as containerships at Bath, Maine, in 1968. Since most cargo liners at the time were still breakbulk, or tween deckers or even conversions, the owners of the Sea Witch wanted to emphasize the ship was one of the first state of the art, purpose-built container ships by often adding “C.V.” to its name.
The Sea Witch was built to carry 612 twenty-foot containers below deck and 316 on deck. It was 610 feet long and 78 feet in beam, with a gross tonnage of 17,902. The ship had 17,500 shaft horse power to sail at 20 knots.
Left: The Sea Witch in 1968 transporting a load of mostly 20-foot containers.
Right: Smoke still rises from the burned out Sea Witch. The Esso Brussels can be seen in the upper right hand corner of the photo.
While approaching New York’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge in an ebbing tide, steaming at about 13 knots, the Sea Witch suffered a steering failure. It veered out of the channel and collided with the anchored 30,000-ton tanker, Esso Brussels, loaded with Nigerian crude oil at the Stapleton anchorage off Staten Island. The Sea Witch rammed about 25 feet of its hull into the tanker’s midship starboard cargo tanks. Sparks from the grinding hulls ignited the oil.
Within minutes, fire and smoke engulfed both ships. The air was filled with fire-blown debris. Upon impact, both ships locked together and drifted toward the Narrows in the 2.5 knot ebbing tide. Crude oil from the ruptured tanks spread on the surface of the water, catching fire which further engulfed both ships. The Verrazano Bridge was scorched as the two burning locked ships drifted below on their way to Gravesend Bay, where they ran aground near each other. The fires continued to burn in the cargo holds and in a number of the Sea Witch’s deck containers for about 10 days. A total of 16 seafarers died and many more were injured, as a result of the collision. All 285 containers on deck and 19 below deck were destroyed, while another 15 under deck were damaged.
Due to the intense heat of the fire aboard the Sea Witch, steel containers buckled while those made of other materials such as aluminum, fiberglass and plywood were incinerated.
As the Sea Witch disaster was the first major fire occurring aboard a cellular containership, the U.S. Maritime Administration and Coast Guard held a symposium in the Commerce Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 10, 1973. The purpose was to review the results and causes of the incident with regards to the construction of the ship and its containers, cargo stowage and the safety concerns of containerization and containerships. More than 200 attendees representing all facets of the maritime and intermodal trades, scientific and government representatives were in attendance, including the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Bureau of Ships (ABS) and National Cargo Bureau (NCB).
Among the observations and recommendations coming from the symposium and the previous months of analysis and testing and evaluation were:
- There was no effective way to fight a fire on the deck of a loaded containership. Further work was required.
- The location of the CO2 room aboard the Sea Witch was difficult to access during the initial days of the fire.
- Three different types of containers were aboard: steel, aluminum and fiberglass reinforced plywood (FRP). Although all were destroyed, it appeared those constructed of steel held up better.
- Chain and wire lashings held up well; however, the swedged alloys and leaded materials lost strength due to the heat.
- Container markings and identification plates were not legible when temperatures exceeded 450° Fahrenheit.
- Many other findings were incorporated in the Fire Prevention Handbook and various codes of the International Maritime Organization and regulations of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Despite the tragedy of the Sea Witch, the event raised awareness of the risks related to fires aboard containerships and the continuous need to improve and implement practices and regulations regarding the safety aboard these ships.