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Bow Mariner Investigation Faults Captain

By The Maritime Executive 01-05-2006 12:01:00

A Coast Guard investigation into the explosion and sinking of the chemical tanker ship "Bow Mariner" off the Virginia coast has disclosed that the captain abandoned ship without sending a distress call or trying to save his crew.

The investigation stated the captain violated safety guidelines, when he ordered vapor-filled cargo tanks opened for cleaning. While the investigation was unable to pinpoint what caused the explosion, 21 of the 27 crew aboard were killed.

Capt. Efstratios Kavouras ordered 22 tanks to be opened, which had previously held methyl tert butyl ether (MTBE). This was contrary to normal safe practices for a tank ship and defies explanation or excuse, according to Coast Guard investigators. The report further concluded that the crew was poorly trained in safety procedures and that there was a lack of professional communication between the ship's Greek officers and Filipino crew members, and that this combination of factors contributed to the death toll.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the explosion was caused by the ignition of a fuel/air mixture, but the ignition source could not be determined. The "Bow Mariner" loaded its cargo of MTBE in Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, on January 24, 2004, and unloaded part of it in New York on February 25, 2004. The explosion occurred when the vessel was off the Virginia coast on its way to Houston. It was transporting 3.1 million gallons of the ethyl alcohol, along with 192,904 gallons of heavy fuel oil and 48,266 gallons of diesel fuel.

The ship's tanks had not been washed or mechanically ventilated, and the concentration of vapors was above the upper explosive limit for MTBE, the report said. The captain ordered the opening of all cargo tank hatches, which permitted vapors to escape at deck level, exposing crew members to a greater risk of an explosion from an accidental spark.

The ignition produced two major explosions less than two minutes apart on February 28, 2004, which resulted in structural damage and flooding. The ship sank in one hour and 32 minutes. Three crewmen, who were recovered, died from exposure and other injuries. Eighteen others remain missing. Only six survived.

The "Bow Mariner" was a 570-foot, Singapore-flagged chemical tanker built in 1982, and was managed by a Greek company, Ceres Hellenic Shipping Enterprises Ltd. The tanker was owned by Odfjell USA, headquartered in Houston.

Captain Kavouras was among those missing. The report said that Ceres and the officers of the tanker failed to implement the company's and the vessel's Safety, Quality and Environmental System.