Coast Guard hearing set for Caribbean Fantasy fire investigation

The Coast Guard will convene a two-week hearing into the Aug. 17, 2016 fire on the 561’ ferry Caribbean Fantasy that forced the evacuation of 511 passengers and crew off San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The sessions will open March 20 at the Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan, with testimony from the Panamanian-flagged vessel’s chief engineer and ship’s officers.

“The hearing will focus on the cause of the marine casualty, the adequacy of fire fighting protection systems, regulatory compliance including any physical or design concerns, adequacy of the vessel’s safety management system and evacuation procedures, and the Coast Guard’s mass rescue operation and procedures,” according to a statement from the Coast Guard Seventh District headquarters in Miami.

The National Transportation Safety Board will join in the hearing, and ultimately issue its own report separate from the Coast Guard’s marine casualty investigation.

The Caribbean Fantasy fire was reported around 7:40 a.m. as the vessel approached San Juan at the end of its thrice-weekly run between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  A massive response by the Coast Guard, local agencies and the port’s tugs, fire boats and pilots resulted and almost all the passengers and crew getting off the ship by 10 a..m

Several passengers were injured on emergency exit slides and about two dozen reported hospitalized, but with few serious injuries.

Investigators will be questioning top managers with vessel owner Baja Ferries, La Paz, Mexico, and looking closely at conditions on the vessel. Firefighters boarding the stricken vessel found a fire source in the engine room.

In Cruise Control, a 2015 investigation of the cruise industry’s health and safety records, the nonprofit journalism group Pro Publica reported the Caribbean Fantasy was cited for 107 deficiencies during Coast Guard inspections in recent years. One Jan. 21, 2015 inspector’s report said of the engine room: “Oil fuel lines shall be screened or otherwise suitably protected to avoid oil spray or oil leakages onto hot surfaces, into machinery air intakes or other sources of ignition.”

The Coast Guard is soliciting information from passengers with an online survey in English and Spanish, where people can pass information to the investigation board. There is also an email account, CaribbeanFantasy@uscg.mil , for interested parties to make comments and ask questions. The hearing itself will be video live-streamed  on the internet at https://livestream.com/USCGinvestigations/CaribbeanFantasy .

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate 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 a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 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.

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