Four-year investigation fails to find cause of ship fire off Canterbury coast
A four year inquiry into a fire that ripped through a ship off the Canterbury coast, forcing dozens of crew members into lifeboats, has failed to establish "with any certainty" how it started.
On Thursday, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) released a report into the blaze, which turned the fishing factory freezer trawler Amaltal Columbia into "a fireball from the bow to the stern" in 2012.
The 41 crew on board were ordered to abandon ship, 85 kilometres northeast of the Lyttelton heads, after exhausting their air tanks battling the inferno.
"A fire of this magnitude on board a vessel has the potential for loss of life, serious injury and significant damage to the vessel," the report says.
The fire broke out about 5am on September 12, 2012, in the fishmeal bagging room on the fish processing deck.
"The commission found that the fire was seated amongst bales of polypropylene bags that were stored in the fishmeal bagging room, but was unable to establish with any certainty what started the fire."
Fluorescent lights, an extension lead, and a fan unit were identified as potential causes.
A Fire Service report said the belt-driven fan, which may have become stuck and overheated, was the "most probable cause" of the fire.
The second mate discovered the fire after crew told him they could smell smoke.
Peter Talley, Talley's Group managing director, said at the time the vessel had burst into "a fireball from the bow to the stern".
The crew fought the fire for several hours with some success, but ship's master Chris Patrick ordered them to abandon ship after all but one of their auxiliary air tanks had run out.
The boat had lost its power and ability to steer, and hot spots could be seen along the vessel's hull from the air.
Crew climbed down the side of the trawler and boarded lifeboats in choppy seas.
Two of the 41 crew members suffered minor smoke inhalation, and the ship suffered extensive heat and smoke damage.
Two other fishing vessels responded to Patrick's mayday call and picked up the crew from the burning boat.
One of the vessels towed the trawler to Lyttelton Port, where firefighters declared the fire was out.
TAIC said the ship's fire systems met required standards, but there could have been less damage with "a more risk-based approach to operations".
It highlighted "lessons" arising from the event, including the importance of early fire detection, the danger of older-style fluorescent light fittings which were more likely to start a fire than more modern fittings, and the importance of using fire-retardant materials on ships.
The ship, built in 1991, was operated out of Nelson by Talley's Group. It had been at sea for three weeks when the fire stared.
The company later repaired the trawler and returned it to service.