On June 7, 2022, about 1204 eastern daylight time, the US Coast Guard received a report of an engine room fire aboard the 169-foot-long passenger vessel Spirit of Norfolk
while it was underway on the Elizabeth River near Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. The vessel was on a 2-hour sightseeing cruise with 108 persons on board. The crew determined they could not enter the smoke-filled engine room to fight the fire, the vessel lost propulsion, and the passengers and crew evacuated to one of the Good Samaritan vessels on scene. The Spirit of Norfolk
was towed to a US Navy pier. The fire spread throughout the vessel before being extinguished 4 days later. There were no injuries, and no pollution was reported.
We found that the fire originated in the Spirit of Norfolk’s engine room, most likely due to the ignition of combustible materials stored near the exhaust pipe of the operating port generator. Due to regulatory exemptions, the Spirit of Norfolk was not required to have an engine room fire detection system; the lack of a fire detection system in the engine room delayed the discovery of the fire and allowed for its growth. The Spirit of Norfolk was also exempt from requirements for engine room fixed gas fire extinguishing systems, which would have given the crew a safe method of fighting the fire.
We also found that actions of the Spirit of Norfolk crew and Good Samaritan vessels and crew resulted in a timely and effective evacuation with no injuries. However, we found that the communications between the firefighting teams and the unified command were ineffective: the unified command was unaware that the firefighting teams were unable to locate the engine room emergency hatch. When the fire attack team opened the engine room door instead of the hatch, the fire was able to spread. Members of the unified command and firefighting personnel declined postcasualty interviews, so the National Transportation Safety Board did not receive critical information about the response. Lessons learned from this casualty could improve contingency planning for maritime firefighting.
We determined that the probable cause of the fire on the Spirit of Norfolk was likely the ignition of combustible material stored near the exhaust piping from the operating port generator. Contributing to the severity of the fire was the lack of a fire detection and fixed fire extinguishing system in the engine room. Also contributing to the severity were ineffective communications between the unified command and firefighting teams that led to the fire attack team opening the engine room door, allowing the fire to spread.
Because the Spirit of Norfolk was exempt from small passenger vessel requirements for engine room fire detection and fixed fire extinguishing systems, we recommended that the Coast Guard require that existing exempted Subchapter K small passenger vessels that were in operation as of March 10, 1996, be fitted with a fire detection system and a fixed gas fire extinguishing system in their engine rooms. Lastly, we recommended that the Coast Guard use the circumstances of this casualty to improve contingency plans related to fighting fires on vessels.