Fire onboard Surf City (I)


On February 20 1990, the American product tanker "SURF CITY" departed from Kuwait, carrying a full load of refined products, destined for the Far East. The SURF CITY was loaded with 47,151 m3 naphtha and 23,801 m3 gas oil. On February 22 the SURF CITY was located about 30 miles North of Dubai, United Arab Emirates During work in the non- gasfree ballast tank on starboard (SB4), a spark in the gas-rich tank caused a very violent explosion. The ballast tank was completely ripped open, the adjacent cargo tanks were damaged, sprangleaks and the leaking naphtha and gas oil flowing from the damaged cargo tanks ignited. Within a very short time the SURF CITY was seriously on fire. As the raging fire was so intense and the risk of further explosions so threatening, the crew had to leave the ship.The explosion killed the two crew members working in the ballast tank. Of the two unfortunate victims, nothing has ever been recovered.

The SURF CITY crew were taken on board by the American frigate USS SIMPSON, which was already escorting the SURF CITY in view of political tensions in the Persian Gulf.

At the time of the accident Piet Sinke, editor of this Shippingnewsclippings, was captain on the self-propelled work barge TAK300. TAK300 was involved in a wreck removal offshore United Arab Emirates. He saw the actual explosion and subsequent blaze. Immediately he called Smit Tak Salvage, the salvage department of Smit International in Rotterdam. Next thing he did was dispatching SMIT SUMATERA, which was working on the same project, towards the casualty.

Very soon Smit Tak Salvage department was in contact with the owner of the SURF CITY, K.O.T.C. (Kuwait Oil & Tanker Company) and concluded a salvage contract on the basis of Lloyd's Open Form.

In the years 1984 - 1988 I had gained experience with tanker fires in the Persian Gulf during the Iran - Iraq War. February 22 at 1400 hours I received a call from Smit Tak Salvage department and was requested to go to the Persian Gulf as salvage master to coordinate the firefighting and extinguish the fire, with the informal remark to at least try to save the ship's scrap value. It was thought unlikely that the fire could be extinguished. Naphtha and gas oil are amongst the low-flash fuels. Very easy to ignite but very difficult to extinguish. At that moment I was just 2 weeks home from a 3 month trip as captain on the tug Smit Belait in the Far East. As I was a person with an adventurous streak, I agreed to Smit Tak Salvage's request. The same evening I flew with a 4 men team from Smit Fire & Loss via London to Dubai.

February 23. At 0635 we landed at Dubai Airport. Our local agent quickly guided us through Immigration and Customs. At 0850 we departed from Dubai Creek, aboard the crew boat ARCTIC EXPRESS, to the position of the SURF CITY. At 1100 we arrived at the position of SURF CITY, which was ferociously on fire. Mainly on SB, at the level of the ripped-open ballast tank SB4.

Around the SURF CITY, four tugs were fightingthe fire using their water fifi monitors. This had little to no effect as to extinguish the fire, more of a cooling effect to prevent the fire from spreading. The HUNTER and STRIKER were anchor handling tugs, owned by K.O.T.C. SMIT SUMATERA was a tug of Smit International Singapore and the IMSALV LION (a beautiful old tug) was the former PACIFIC (build in 1962) of the (once famous) tugboat company Bugsier from Hamburg. We boarded the SMIT SUMATERA with our gear. The coordination of the fire fighting started immediately. Everyone was in a random place where it wasn't too hot. In relation to the wind, the SURF CITY was in a wrong position. That was first corrected by turning the SURF CITY 180 degrees with the help of the STRIKER and SMIT SUMATERA. After having given each tug a location alongside to cool more efficiently, we boarded SURF CITY at 1220 for an initial inspection.

On board the SURF CITY I met the representative of K.O.T.C. and a surveyor of the Salvage Association (representative for insurance). Together we made a round over the ship. From ballast tank SB4, the top (the deck) and side shell plate were completely blown away by the explosion. From the adjacent cargo tanks C5 and C6, burning naphtha flowed into the open ballast tank. Burning gas oil flowed out of SB3 into the ballast tank. The Surf City’saccommodation was approximately for 70% damaged by the fire. In the engine room there was about 2 m of water. I was told HUNTER and STRIKER had carried out a unsuccessful foam attack in the early hours of the morning. Both vessels were out of stock of foam. More foam was ordered through the Smit base in Sharjah. That was supposed to be broughtthe next morning.

During the afternoon the wind started to increase from a WNW'ly direction bft 5. The SURF CITY turned with the bow on the wind, causing the flames and heat to blow from bow to stern over the vessel and tank C7, loaded with gas oil, to start heating up. STRIKER was asked to push the SURF CITY around so that the wind was coming in abeam fromthe portside (PS). With the increasing sea state, it was no longer possible to stay alongside for the HUNTER and IMALV LION on the windward side. They casted off and manoeuvred near SURF CITY to continue their cooling activities. During the night, despite the strong breeze and sea, the cooling continued as effectively as was possible.

Most of the night I stayed on the SURF CITY, giving directions to the tugs to stay in the best possible position so that the cooling remained effective. Winter nights in the Persian Gulf can be cold when winds blow from a NW’ly direction. Tiredness made me cold and occasionally I crept a little closer to the fire to warm myself. Occasionally I would board the SMIT SUMATERA to have something to eat and drink and contact Smit Tak Salvage in Rotterdam to report. From 0100 onwards, the crew of the tugs alongside were preparing for the foam attack that was planned for the next day.


February 24. At 0600 ARCTIC EXPRESS arrived with 10 tons of foam forming agent. During the morning, the preparations for the foam attack continued. The wind had increased to WNW bft 7/8. The SURF CITY was drifting towards the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The sea became rough and the swell began to build up from the NW. At 1000 I decided to turn the SURF CITY so that the sea and swell would run into the burning ballast tank SB4 and thus create additional extinguishing capacity. This plan didn’t worked out because the tugs were moving too violently by the rough sea state and therefore could not push the SURF CITY around without causing significant damage to themselves. Shortly afterwards, a few violent explosions took place in tanks C5 and C7. The three people who were at that moment still on board the SURF CITY requested to be taken off. I asked them, before disembarking, to drop the SURF CITY’s anchor. So preventing that the burning ship would drift further to the coast. A burning tanker on the coast of the Emirates would not be appreciated by the authorities.


Because of the weather today's foam attack was called off. The SURF CITY was now with the bow in the wind and all flames and heat were going backwards. The tugs couldn't get alongside to  cool down. This situation should not last too long. There was a danger that the aft tanks would also explode and caught fire. Thereafter also the engine room, which was still intact, would be damaged and the ship would be fit for demolition.

Earlier today, when alongside the SURF CITY, SMIT SUMATERA's firefighting pump motor was irreparably damaged and definitely out of order. I asked the captain of the SMIT SUMATERA to get ready for towing and put me on board the SURF CITY’s stern. After I embarked on board I connect the SMIT SUMATERA’s tow sling on a bollard.

I asked the SMIT SUMATERA to pull the SURF CITY around with the SB beam on the wind so that the rough sea and swell would run into tank SB4 and the burning tanks. That gave an extra cooling effect and also the heat and flames would no longer blow to the aft. In addition the other boats in the lee on PS could continue their cooling activities.

Later that evening, the strength of the wind abated. At 2230 we boarded SURF CITY for inspection with 3 men from the salvage team. The situation was reasonably under control as we could cool effectively, with help of the sea and swell. The tanks around the ballast tank SB4 were fairly warm, not hot. From cargo tank C7, fully loaded with gas oil, the tank cover was blown  off by one of the explosions. Luckily, the tank didn't catch fire. We stayed  on board all night. Occasionally there were explosions in tanks SB3, C5 and C6. The deck above tanks C5 and C6 began to show cracks on several places. This night also we moved a little closer to the fire because of the cold and fatigue. Around 0300 there was a huge explosion from tank C7 that aroused us from dreaming. Luckily the tank didn’t ignite, but the deck above this tank had gotten pretty hot. Striker changed position and concentrated cooling on C7.


February 25. In the course of the night the weather improved, sea and swell quickly subsided. Early in the morning, anchor handling tug NICE TANGO arrived on the scene. An anchor handling tug with firefighting capabilities and a full tank of foam forming agent.

In recent days it had been a coming and going of various types of boats that wanted to participate in the salvage, but they were either not suitable or useless and were sent away.

At 0930 there was another heavy explosion in tank C7. Over an area of 8 m2, several cracks had appeared in the deck above C7. This time, tank C7 caught fire. The fire was quickly contained. Three more times that morning tank C7 ignited, all times we could extinguished the fire in time before it went out of control.


At 0930 there was another heavy explosion in tank C7. Over an area of 8 m2, several cracks had appeared in the deck above C7. This time, tank C7 caught fire. The fire was quickly contained. Three more times that morning tank C7 ignited, all times we could extinguished the fire in time before it went out of control.

During the morning it was decided to start at noon a foam attack. At 1200 the tanks C5 and C6 were attacked with the hand foam monitors that had been installed at strategic locations on the deck of SURF CITY and were fed from the tugs alongside. After the smoke and flames were reduced NICE TANGO and STRIKER started to take part at 1245 with their main foam monitors and laid a large foam layer in ballast tank SB4.Through the cracks in the bulkheads of the adjacent cargo tanks foam was sprayed into the burning tanks. At first we thought we were successful with that. But the tugs had difficulties to stay in position and therefore couldn’t aim well through the cracks in the bulkheads. Flames continued to leap out of the burning cargo tanks. This couldn't go on much longer. Our foam supply wasn't infinite. By 1330, the foam attack had to be stopped. As the foam layer in the tanks slowly decreased the fire intensified again. All ships went back to cooling deck and tanks. A new plan had to be thought up.

That afternoon, while being on deck of the SURF CITY, I saw on the horizon a familiar silhouette of a tug passing by. A Smit ocean going tug towing a jack up oil rig. Later that afternoon, when I was in contact with the manager of the Smit branch in Sharjah, I heard the tug was the SMIT NEW YORK, towing a rig to Dubai. I urgently requested that, after delivery of the tow, the SMIT NEW YORK be sent as soon as possible to us.I could use the SMIT NEW YORK very well. I was familiar with the ship, its capabilities, the salvage equipment that was on board and the Dutch officers. I told him I would take this up further with Smit Tak Salvage department for the official permission. The answer was that I could forget about that. De SMIT NEW YORK had to start next month a contract with an offshore company in India. That was more important for Smit than putting out a fire. I was flabbergasted by his answer and very angry about it. Smit Tak was a towing & salvage company, not a boat rental company.


In the evening the wind suddenly changed to SE and increased to bft 5. The SMIT SUMATERA had to swing around the SURF CITY and the vessels alongside had to change their position. During the night an unexpected irregular current appeared and it was very difficult to keep the SURF CITY in position and for the cooling tugs to stay in position. I was the whole night busy to give SMIT SUMATERA heading directions and reposition the firefighting tugs. That was accompanied by a lot of effort and grumbling by the boat handlers. People worked long hours and got tired.  Me too.  The situation  got dire.  The bunker tanks, C7, C6, C5, SB5 and PS4 became very hot. If one of these tanks would flare up, a chain reaction would follow and more tanks would catch fire. I started thinking about plans to move the SURF CITY. We were so close to shore and shallow water. It would cause a disaster if the fire got out of hand and the SURF CITY would sink here. I called for consultation with the salvage department in Rotterdam to discuss the situation and my plans. I brought up the use of the SMIT NEW YORK and called on them to make it free for the SURF CITY. They would go higher up in the Smit organization to argue my case.


February 26. During the night, it was also reported form shore that the authorities of the United Arab Emirates were concerned about the burning tanker so close to the coast of Sharjah. Moreover, it was just in front of the palace of the Sultan of Sharjah, who was already starting to ask questions. At 0400 I informed all ships that in the course of the morning we would leave with the SURF CITY from the Persian Gulf, into the Gulf of Oman. In the Gulf of Oman there was deeper water and if the SURF CITY was lost and would sink, it would be less harmful than so close to the coast in view of the Sultan of Sharjah. I asked the IMSALV LION to prepare fortowing. There was an unexpected reply. They couldn't tow, their tow winch was under repair. That was a big setback. The HUNTER was asked to prepare for towing. She also reported problems with her tow winch.


Eventually I decided to disconnect the SMIT SUMATERA from the stern and use her as towing tug. At 0600 SMIT SUMATERA had made a towing connection on the bow of the SURF CITY. The STRIKER came alongside under the bow, with her stern against the PS anchor chain. Striker's crew were afraid to burn with a cutting torch through the anchor chain. It was too dangerous in their opinion. I climbed down from the forecastle of the SURF CITY through the haws pipe along the anchor chain, took over the cutting torch from STRIKER and cut through the link of SURF CITY 's anchor chain. After the chain was buoyed off and let go, the STRIKER connect her tow line to the Surf City's loose end of the anchor chain. The HUNTER was left behind to recover the cut off chain and anchor. She wouldn't come back. IMSALV LION stayed behind to take bunkers and provisions and would meet us later.

At 0900 the towage out of the Persian Gulf started in a NE’ly heading, direction Strait of Hormuz. The American frigate USS THACH took over the escort services from her sister frigate USS SIMPSON NICE TANGO went alongside the SURF CITY at SB and cooled the deck of SURF CITY as much as possible. The SURF CITY followed reasonably, yawing out to one side. The speed was about 3 knots. The fire gradually increased again because there was not enough cooling and occasionally loud explosions occurred. During the morning Smit Tak Salvage department informed me of the positive news that Smit International top management had whistled back the manager of Smit Sharjah and that SMIT NEW YORK was available for us. I was a happy man.


As we proceeded towards Strait of Hormuz, many passing vessels came very close to have a look-see, despite regular warnings to all shipping from SMIT SUMATERA. I asked the commander of USS THACH if he could transmit the warnings for us. That had a good effect, no ship got too close anymore. Another problem occurred. The STRIKERS's tow winch gave problems, hertow winch brake slipped when more than 30% pulling force applied. She continued towing with limited bollard pull. SMIT SUMATERA had to increase to full power to keep sufficient speed in the transport.

1615 the IMSALV LION arrived back at the transport, when moving closer to the Surf City she reported that PS and SB slop tanks were on fire, as well as PS5 tank. That was a worrying situation. I had NICE TANGO cast off and the 2 towing tugs pulled the SURF CITY around so that the sea and swell could run in the burning ballast tank SB4. In this way, lee was created on PS and IMSALV LION and NICE TANGO could come alongside PS to tackle the fires that flared up. Large quantities of burning naphtha and gas oil washed out of the cargo tanks and into the sea. At 1845, shortly before the manoeuvre was completed, the tow connection of the SMIT SUMATERA parted. Around this time, also the news came to me that SMIT NEW YORK would arrive at the transport later this day. I decided not to connect the SMIT SUMATERA anymore and to wait for SMIT NEW YORK

At 2245 the SMIT NEYW YORK arrived on our location. There was a change out of people and equipment. I went over to SMIT NEW YORK with part of the salvage team. Two men from the salvage team went permanently to the NICE TANGO. There had been several miscommunication problems and no orders follow-up form the NICE TANGO crew. SMIT NEW YORK took over the tow connection from STRIKER. SMIT SUMATERA was thanked for her services and dismissed. She went back to her original job with TAK 300, before heading head over heels to the SURF CITY salvage.

At 2330 SMIT NEW YORK had connected to the anchor chain and the voyage to deeper water continued. The weather was good. A light Westerly wind, flat sea, no swell. STRIKER, IMSALV LION and NICE TANGO went alongside in strategic places to keep cooling and thus prevent further expansion of the fires. When all this was arranged, I was able to start charging my own battery. I hadn't slept since arriving at the SURF CITY on February 23 AM. Before my head hit the pillow, I was asleep.



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