x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Three die on tanker as spark sets off explosions

Investigations have begun into a series of explosions on an oil tanker at Fujairah port that left three people dead, one injured and two missing.

DUBAI // Investigations have begun into a series of explosions on an oil tanker at Fujairah port that left three people dead, one injured and two missing.

Some 105 local repair workers and crew were on board when welding work created a spark that triggered three blasts on the MT Prem Divya on Thursday. The tanker, which is owned by the Indian firm Mercator Limited, was not carrying oil.

Fujairah port authorities said the vessel had been certified as having been cleared of any of the flammable gases often present on oil tankers, particularly empty ones, where the gas has more space to expand.

Technical experts representing both the shipowner and insurer had arrived to try to determine the cause of the accident, Capt Mousa Morad, the general manager of Fujairah port, said yesterday.

"They have to come together to find out," he said.

"There's money, there's insurance, there's some people missing - so many things."

Meanwhile civil defence authorities began searching yesterday for the missing men.

It was unclear if they had stayed on board or, like many of their peers, jumped into the water.

The three crewmen who died had remained on board, and their bodies were being removed yesterday.

One of the injured was sent to Fujairah Hospital with burns on his body and fractures in the bones around an eye. "His case is still not stable," said Mohammed Abdullah Said, head of the Fujairah health district.

Half of the 24-man crew were now staying in hotels, and the other half would remain with the ship. The repair workers had left, said Ishtiaq Ahmed Malik, the duty official of the Blue Sea Shipping Agency, which was managing the vessel.

The Prem Divya will remain in the UAE until accident-related issues are sorted, including the investigation into the cause, an assessment of damage to the ship, compensation to the repair companies and repatriation of the deceased. "It's a long procedure," Mr Malik said.

The tanker had arrived in Fujairah on December 27 for 10 days of "operational care". Workers from local firms had come to check the pipes and do welding in the engine room and other repairs and maintenance.

Ships must receive gas-free approvals before commencing any "hot work", or activities that could start a fire, such as welding, Capt Morad said. "We already got that, so what went wrong, we don't know. Any tanker that has gas in it should be made free of gas before any welding or hot work takes place."

Soon after the explosion late on Thursday afternoon many of the men on board leapt into the water. Neighbouring ships and the coastguard arrived to help them to safety, and the port authorities sent a crew to put out the fire.

"There were three blasts - boom, boom, boom - so the people were in panic," Mr Malik said.

Empty oil tankers are susceptible to having residual flammable gas on board - even more so than on full tankers, where the gas has less area in which to expand.

Strict degassing regulations are key to preventing accidents, said a locally based maritime consultant and former US coastguard official who declined to be named.

"When you pop off all the oil products, then you have all that space which, unless it's ventilated, is one giant flammable gas environment," he said, stressing that he did not know the specifics of the incident in Fujairah.

"If you do any kind of hot work, which is welding work, you want to make certain that the space that you're in and the space that's adjacent to that has been appropriately degassed for any explosive gas and ventilated," he said.

Fujairah police directed queries to the port authorities, and the coastguard there said they were not authorised to comment.

chuang@thenational.ae