Fire onboard Surf City (II)


During the night the wind picked up and became Easterly bft 5/6. Flames and heat gushed over the PS aft of the SURF CITY It was not possible to alter course to a more favourable heading in the Strait of Hormuz because the transport was very close to the Oman coast. An Omani navy vessel joined the USS THACH in escorting us.

February 27. At 0200 it was reported that SB5 cargo tank and PS slop tank were on fire. STRIKER went PS alongside and noticed that the tanks were not on fire but that gases from these tanks escaped through the tank head and flared. 0600 the wind was NE’ly bft 6, a rough sea and light swell. Not all tugs could stay alongside, also the course could not be changed because of our position.

At 1230 we finally could change course and the tugs could come back alongside to start cooling more efficiently.

In the course of the afternoon an inspection round was made on the Surf City. The result didn't look good. Fire in C5, C6, C7, PS5, PS slop tank, SB5 and SB slop tank. The steel deck began to collapse in various places due to the heat. The cracks in the deck got larger. The level of water in the engine room had increased by 30 cm. There was a fuel oil leakage from PS bunker tank in the engine room due to a crack in the bunker tank. Probably caused by one of the tugs lying alongside during the firefighting. That didn't always went smooth and easy.

By the end of the afternoon we were out of the Strait of Hormuz. The wind had weakened to NE bft 3 and the tugs were able to remain alongside again. The danger now was that the flames and heat swept over tank C4. This tank was still intact, and I wanted to keep it that way.

Just after 2000, a violent explosion occurred in tank C6. The longitudinal bulkhead between C6 and the adjacent ballast tank SB4 was gone and the deck above C6 collapsed. Burning naphtha now floated on the water and along the ship's hull backwards. The NICE TANGO had to leave its position at SB aft because of the burning naphtha on the water. With a lot of encouragement I was able to keep the NICE TANGO nearby to still be of some use. The fire in C6 increased in intensity as more oxygen was available in that open tank. Tank C4 was now in danger of overheating and ignition. I asked SMIT NEW YORK to change course towards the Iranian coast, reduce speed and eventually stop. With the transport stopped in the water around 2200 NICE TANGO was able to continue cooling SB aft in place of the engine room and the tanks just before the engine room. Stopped in the water, the tugs were able to cool again in an efficient way.



Myself also had to pay the toll for being on my feet for so long a time without resting. I could barely walk anymore, my feet were sore and so swollen that I couldn't wear shoes or boots anymore. Medical advice was sought from our escort ship USS THACH. I was invited by the USS THACH’s ship’s doctor to his sickbay.

I was diagnosed with cellulites (infection of subcutaneous connective tissue). The doctor didn't find it surprising after walking around for such a long time without taking a rest. He advised me to stay on board the USS THACH for a few days, for treatment and rest. That wasn't going to happen and with a bag of medicine and explicit advice to take a few days off I went back on board the IMSALV LION, to coordinate matters from a chair.
When I was lying in the sickbay, as a matter of courtesy and interest the commander of the USS THACH came to visit me. He was very impressed with our fight against the blazing inferno on the SURF CITY and followed it with great interest. During our conversation I asked him if he could be of service to us with his helicopter during the times when there would be no people on the SURF CITY due to unsafe situations. They could report us on eventual hot spots and threatening situations. Also whether too close were visited by the helicopter and urged to keep their distance.
Also whether he wanted to keep an eye on the sea area around us because of our proximity to the Iranian coast. "No problem, we’ll take care of that" he said. USS THACH was already watching movements of a number of boats heading our way from the Iranian coast and had sent his helicopter over there. After that, every day the USS THACH helicopter flew a number of reconnaissance flights over the SURF CITY. Ships that got too close were visited by the helicopter and urged to keep their distance.
February 28. During the night, there was effective cooling and the Iranian coast got closer. Around 0600 we were drifting within the 12 mile zone and the Smit New York had to tow again to distance ourselves from the Iranian coast. We were also advised by the commander of USS THACH to do so. The weather was reasonable, because of the wind and with the tugs alongside we sailed South, gradually distancing ourselves from the Iranian coast. The tugs were able to stay alongside and the cooling work could effectively continue.

At 1100, the GRAY RANGE arrived on location. This tug brought 20 tons of foam forming agent and a heavy diesel firefighting pump for the IMSALV LION.

Unfortunately, due to a technical fault, this pump could only be used for 50%. The foam went to the Striker's foam tank. At 1315 came the message from the NICE TANGO that their foam tank was contaminated and they could no longer supply good foam. At 1400 NICE TANGO reported that one of their fire pumps was broken and could not be repaired. A engineer of the SMIT NEW YORK boarded the NICE TANGO and managed to get the pump working again around 1700.

By 2015, gas oil tank SB3 had caught fire again. From time to time SB slop tank, SB5, C6 and C7 caught fire. When the tanks were cooled again with sufficient capacity, these fires were brought under control again fairly quickly. Tank C5 burned continuously and could not be brought under control, only contained. During the night we kept going like this, further distancing ourselves from the Iranian coast. I was eager to get back on my feet again and tried every hour if I could put my boots back on. The Smit Fire & Loss team, with which the co-operation was excellent, meanwhile kept the ships around the SURF CITY in the right position to keep control of the fires as best as possible.



March 1. At 0530 I was able to put my boots back on and I boarded the SURF CITY from IMSALV LION. Tanks C5 and SB3 were still on fire. The rest of the tanks were under control, but the decks were fairly hot to hot. Again the weather played up and around 0900 there was a strong NW'ly wind blowing with bft 8. The tugs at SB had to shift to PS. At 1145 there was a violent explosion in tank C7 with the result that C7, C6 and SB5 were on fire again. During the day SMIT NEW YORK continued to tow further South. Explosions and fires followed each other up and the tugs had their hands full to control them. Around 1630, the weather improved again. At 1645 I was called to the radio by the commander of USS THACH. To his regret, he had to report that he had received orders from his admiral at headquarters and had to leave. He would have liked to stay with us to see how this battle against the fire would end. But orders are orders, especially in the Navy.

The American destroyer USS MERRILL would take over the escort service from USS THACH and would execute the same tasks to inform and protect us. Since we now had enough distance from the Iranian coast and the weather had improved well, I decided to stop the transport and play all or nothing to get the fire under control. By 1730 the SMIT NEW YORK had stopped the transport and with the tow wire still connected she came alongside to PS of the SURF CITY Salvage equipment was transferred to the SURF CITY. SMIT NEW YORK's large salvage pump was started and hundreds of tons of seawater were pumped over the deck of the SURF CITY. All ships were strategically positioned alongside to cool as effectively as possible and put out starting fires. By 2100, only tanks C5 and SB3 were still on fire. Of the huge amount of extinguishing water, a lot of seawater flowed through the cracks in deck in the cargo tanks C5, C6 and SB3. Naphtha and gas oil flowed from these tanks into the open ballast tank SB4 and into the sea. Nice Tango, which was SB in front of it, had to put one of its water monitors on the surface of the water to keep the burning naphtha and gas oil away from its stern. Striker’s fifi pump engine stopped due to technical problems. Again an engineer from SMIT NEW YORK boarded STRIKER to assist. This way we went into the night and made plans to carry out a foam attack the next day.


March 2. During the night the necessary preparations were made by the various tug crews. 0600 the salvage team completed an inspection round. Except for the decks of C5 and SB3, all decks were cool to warm. Despite the many explosions and fires in tank C7, it was still almost full of gas oil. Preparations for the foam attack were all in place. The waiting was for the repair to the Striker's fifi pump. At 1515 it was time and the foam attack began. Tank SB3 was quickly out and the fire in C5 had reduced significantly. STRIKER and NICE TANGO foamed with their monitors through the holes and cracks in the longitudinal bulkhead between C5 and ballast tank SB4.                     

They could not get as close as they wanted to as during the explosion the deck and the ship's shell plate had been blown away, bent over and protruded outside underwater.In addition, by the continuous moving tugs during manoeuvring, it was not possible to aim their fifi monitors properly. A lot of foam was wasted and the effect was disappointing. Several times no flames were observed and we thought the fire was out. But again and again, new flames came through the cracks and holes.By 1720, we had ran out of foam and the attack was stopped. After a meeting with the salvage team and the captain of the SMIT NEW YORK a new plan was made. It was almost impossible to get the naphtha fire under control through the openings in deck with foam. The plan was now to fill and overflow tank C5 with SMIT NEW YORK 's salvage pump and so push the naphtha, which had a lower specific weight than seawater, out of the tank by bringing the water under the naphtha. At 1800 we started to pump seawater in tank C5. When the water started to rise in C5, large quantities of naphtha were flooded out of the tank through the cracks and holes in the bulkhead, in the open ballast tank SB4. That was accompanied by a huge blaze and an extreme amount of radiation heat. The Imsalv Lion, at that time SB alongside SURF CITY suffered a lot from the radiation heat and was also threatened by the outflowing burning naphtha and had to keep it at bay with a monitor. Smit New York slowly used its propellers backward. As a result, more of the burning naphtha flowed backwards along the Surf City and less towards the IMSALV LION. STRIKER and NICE TANGO continued to cool the ship's hull from a distance with their monitors. This lasted until 1855. Then the radiation heat for IMSALV LION became too much and she had to cast off. When she was gone SMIT NEW YORK stopped her propellers and SURF CITY was stopped again in the water. On the SMIT NEW YORK, the superstructure and windows in it became extremely hot. The crew rigged up fire hoses and sprayed to cool the superstructure and windows. This continued until 2130, when it got too hot for the SMIT NEW YORK. Water injections was stopped in C5. The salvage pump was put on the fifi monitors and a water screen was created around the tug, which reduced the radiation heat.


March 3. During the night, SMIT NEW YORK's superstructure was cooled down sufficiently. The fire had also eased, but there was still a significant amount of naphtha in tank C5. At 0600 again seawater was pumped into C5. This lasted until 0735, when the radiation heat became too much again and water screen cooling was resumed. Alternately, cooling and water was pumped into C5 every hour. Around noon the wind started to increase and at 1415 there was a strong Westerly wind bft 7. Sea and swell began to build up. It was becoming too rough for the SMIT NEW YORK to remain alongside, she had to cast off. The STRIKER was also struck by bad luck. One main engine broke down and she could no longer manoeuvre properly.


Part of the SMIT NEW YORK crew stayed on the SURF CITY. They rigged lighting in the engine room, re-plugged the fuel oil leak from BB bunker tank into the engine room and rigged up transportable pumps to pump water out of the engine room at a later stage. At 1700 the swell was about 3 m high. I decided to let SMIT NEW YORK pulled the SURF CITY around and let the sea and swell come in from SB. This had a great result. The waves ran freely and high in the open ballast tank SB4 and from there in the burning tanks C5 and SB3. Huge clouds of steam rose up and as the waves retreated for another attack, burning naphtha and gas oil flowed out of C5 and SB3.The intensity of the fire decreased. I asked the NICE TANGO to get closer to hand out the final blow to the fire. Unfortunately, she couldn't use her fifi monitors to aim properly. The STRIKER was also unable to assist, still on one main engine and limited in manoeuvring. IMSALV LION was an old-fashioned tugboat, with one propeller, and was limited in manoeuvring. It seemed the fire in SB3 was out by now. The fire in C5 had eased and occasionally flames came out of C6. IMSALV LION was PS alongside aft of SURF CITY. NICE TANGO and STRIKER had both solved their technical problems in the early evening.

NICE TANGO went behind IMSALV LION. STRIKER was on SB aft cooling the SURF CITY’s hull as floating burning naphtha flowed along the ship's hull.


March 4. Shortly after sunrise the wind dropped sharply and not long after that the sea and swell had diminished as well. During the morning another inspection round was made on the SURF CITY According to soundings with the interface detector meter, there was still 4.5m naphtha in tank C5 above the water. Certainly our plan worked. As soon as the sea state permitted, which was at 1130, SMIT NEW YORK was back in its previous position on PS alongside SURF CITY and continued to pump seawater in C5. STRIKER and NICE TANGO were on the SB side and kept an eye on the outflowing naphtha and cooled the ship's hull. Alternately, seawater was pumped into tank C5 and interrupted only for cooling SMIT NEW YORK and keeping the outflow of burning naphtha under control. At 2145, there was a another setback. One fire pump engine from STRIKER stopped permanently and STRIKER could now only use one of her 2 fifi monitors. The wind was Westerly bft 2-3. No sea and swell. The wind came in from PS to the SURF CITY so the radiation heat was less of a problem on the SMIT NEW YORK.


March 5. During the night, nothing much changed, the situation was more or less under control. Large amounts of burning naphtha flowed out of tank C5. It was like everyone was getting used to it. At 0800, the salvage team boarded SURF CITY for inspection. Soundings and temperatures were taken of all cargo tanks. After measuring with the interface detection meter in tank C5 there was still 0.5 m of naphtha above the water. It was also observed less naphtha was flowing out of C5 and the intensity of the burning naphtha was lessening. The deck was warm but no longer hot. Only the deck above C5 was hot.


During the morning, various salvage works continued. Many cracks and openings in cargo tanks were sealed. Lighting was rigged up on the deck of the SURF CITY. At 1030 it was observed that water and burning naphtha flowed through the cracks in the bulkhead between C5 and SB4. It was obvious we were winning and our tactics worked out well.

At 1600 it was observed that tanks C1 and C3, loaded with naphtha, began to overflow. Boggling our mind for a little while. After giving this some thought we stopped pumping water in C5. Soon after that, the naphtha overflow stopped from tanks C1 and C3. We found the reason of the problem. Tank C5 leaked through the tank valve in the common pipeline running through the duct keel in tanks valves of C1 and C3. Water has a higher specific gravity than naphtha. The higher level of seawater in tank C5 pushed through the leaking tank valves in the duct keel into tanks C1 and C3the level of naphtha up. After the water level in C5 dropped again, the naphtha levels in C1 and C3 also dropped.

Tank C5 was still on fire because it still had some naphtha in it. The fire was significantly less than in the days before. Around 1900 we had 2 water hoses rigged up and 2 men kept a continuous watch at C1 and C3 tank heads. Water was sprayed into C1 and C3 to prevent naphtha from leaking back to tank C5 through the leaking tank valves in the duct keel. This way only seawater seeped through to C5 and that didn't matter. During the evening and night we continued cooling. SMIT NEW YORK, STRIKER and IMSALV LION on PS from SURF CITY and NICE TANGO on SB. The fire in C5 was reduced, the deck became cooler. This night the weather remained favourable to us. March 6. Gradually the fire in C5 diminished and even sometimes the flames were gone. At 0625 there was a gas explosion in C5 with huge flames. When the flames dissipated, there was no more fire in C5. Now all the cooling focused on tank C5 and its direct surroundings. At 0700 the signal was given that the fire was extinguished.

At 0800 the workboat from SMIT NEW YORK went to the USS MERRILL to pick up 2 butterworth pumps (tank washing pumps). The helicopter had collected these pumps for us from shore. The pumps were installed immediately. These butterworth pumps were suitable for lowering through special holes in the deck in order to accomplish tanks washing. With  these pumps, tank C5 could  be cooled  internally. Water injections in C1 and C3 were temporarily stopped. Regularly we monitored that C1 and C3 did not overflow due to too much water in C5.

After sunrise, it had gradually become windless. For the tugs alongside that was fine, but a gas cloud began to form above and around the SURF CITY. That created a dangerous situation. At 1010, SMIT NEW YORK casted off and began to tow the SURF CITY towards the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Imsalv Lion, Striker and NICE TANGO stayed alongside to keep a continuous water curtain over SURF CITY. SMIT NEW YORK's workboat was in the water several times to ferry materials and people back and forth. There was plenty work to do. In the engine room fuel oil from the leaking PS bunker tank was pumped over to another tank. The engine room was further pumped out. Many cracks and holes in deck and tank heads were patched up and closed. The crew of several tugs worked for hours emptying and jettison the content of the cold store rooms into the sea. All the provisions had melted, perished and rotten. The people in the fridges and freezers were working with breathing apparatuses because of the strong ammonia fumes. A bunch of sharks and other fishes had a great banquet that day.

March 7. During the night a message came from Smit Tak Salvage department that the authorities of the United Arab Emirates had assigned an anchorage for the SURF CITY, 21 miles East of Khor Fakkan. We were not far from that position. SMIT NEW YORK towed us to the assigned position and stopped the transport. At 1010 the SB anchor of the SURF CITY was presented. A very excited and difficult salvage was successfully accomplished. It had been the most satisfying salvage for me in my career at sea. Later, I was told by Smit Tak Salvage department that it had not been done before to bring under control a naphtha and gas oil ship blaze, extinguish it and salvage such a substantial part of the cargo.


March 8. The salvage was over, but the work not. Later that morning a large Smit Tak salvage team arrived from Rotterdam. With an reliever for me. After an extensive hand over to my successor I left the SURF CITY by crew boat to Khor Fakkan. I arrived at 1700 in the Hilton Hotel and took a delicious beer. I flew home March 9.

The newly arrived salvage crew prepared the SURF CITY for the next step of the operation. Discharge of the remaining cargo. The salvaged naphtha and gas oil was pumped into a lightering tanker in the following week. About 65% of the cargo  was salvaged. The SURF CITY  was then towed  to Dubai. There she was made seaworthy and prepared for towage to the Far East. That was where the ship was repaired and under a new name, she sailed for many more years.

I would like to thank Capt Kees Pronk (retired) for compiling this special report for the shippingnewsclippings
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