Fuel spraying from a leaking flange triggered an August 2016 ferry fire on the ro/ro Caribbean Fantasy off Puerto Rico, and failure of operator Baja Ferries safety management system contributed to the uncontrolled blaze and a prolonged passenger evacuation, the National Transportation Safety Board reported.

Contributing to the fire’s rapid spread were quick-closing valves for fuel and lube oil that were intentionally blocked open,” according to the report on the Aug. 17, 2016 accident near the port of San Juan. “The NTSB also found that fixed firefighting systems and a structural fire boundary failed.”

Investigators cited “Baja Ferries’ poor safety culture” on the 614’ Panamanian flag ferry, and failure by the Panama Maritime Authority and its recognized organization, RINA Services, to ensure the safety management system was functional.

The NTSB issued recommendations based on its report to all those organizations, the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Association of Classification Societies. The recommendations address machinery maintenance practices, fuel and lube oil quick-closing valves, fire protection, crew training on and familiarity with emergency systems and procedures, implementation of the company’s safety management system, and oversight by Panama.

“The recommendations that we issued today, if acted upon, will improve marine safety,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “I urge the recipients to act on these recommendations, so that this fortunately non-fatal fire is not remembered as the dress rehearsal for a future tragedy.’’

The fire began vessel, when fuel spraying from a leaking flange contacted the hot surface of the port main engine. The master ordered abandon ship, and the fire burned for three days as the vessel drifted and then grounded near San Juan. The fire was finally extinguished by shore-based firefighters after the Caribbean Fantasy was towed into the harbor.

The 511 passengers and crew were evacuated to San Juan, with more than 45 treated for non-life-threatening injuries including knee, ankle and leg injuries, fainting, breathing difficulties and other issues. Six serious cases of ankle injury happened with passengers sliding down the ship’s evacuation chutes. With $20 million damage, the Caribbean Fantasy was ultimately scrapped.


Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.