Marine Investigation Report M01M0017

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigated this occurrence for the purpose of advancing transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.

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Container Fire
Container Vessel Kitano
Off Chebucto Head, Nova Scotia
22 March 2001


On 22 March 2001, while en route from New York, New York, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the container vessel Kitano reported a fire on the foredeck at about 1400. The fire originated in one of the above deck containers, located on the starboard side, just forward of amidships. The vessel was not allowed to enter the inner harbour until the following afternoon due to concerns with the contents of containers adjacent to the fire. As shore-based fire-fighting resources were unable to board the vessel due to the high winds and seas, the vessel's crew fought the fire. The vessel was secured alongside in Halifax on 24 March 2001, where the damaged containers were offloaded.

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Other Factual Information

Registry/Licence Number 131968
Port of Registry Tokyo
Flag Japan
Type Container Ship
Gross Tonnage 50618
Length1 288.31 m
Draught 13.025 m
Built Koyo Dockyard Company Limited, 1990
Propulsion 8 cylinder B & W Mitsui Tamano 31 538 kW, single screw.
Crew 22
Registered Owner Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha Tokyo, Japan

Description of the Vessel

Photo 1 - The Kitano

Photo 1.  The Kitano

The Kitano is a steel-hulled container ship with its wheelhouse, accommodation and engine-room located aft of the seven forward cargo holds and forward of an after cargo hold. The eight cargo holds and single engine-room are divided by ten watertight bulkheads. The vessel has a cargo container capacity of 3618 twenty foot equivalent units (T.E.U.) and is equipped to carry 20, 40 and 45 foot general purpose containers above and below deck.

History of the Voyage

The Kitano departed New York, New York, at 0730 Atlantic standard time,2 on 21 March 2001 for Halifax, Nova Scotia and ports in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. At 1600, while the vessel was preparing to enter the Halifax Vessel Traffic System (VTS), a plume of smoke was noticed issuing from the midship area of the vessel. Further investigation revealed that the container located in cargo bay 301184 was on fire. The general alarm was immediately sounded and as the fire party prepared to fight the fire, glowing pellets were noticed falling from the bottom of the container in bay 3011843 on to the container 301182 directly below.

The spray from the fire hoses was directed at the glowing pellets, both extinguishing and washing them out from between the containers. At 1616, an entry in the vessel's wheelhouse logbook reports the fire under control. Although a MAYDAY was not declared, at approximately 1636, the Kitano notified Halifax Coast Guard Radio (VCS) that it had a fire in a container onboard and the crew was attempting to extinguish the blaze. VCS notified the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) who immediately commenced tasking available surface and air search and rescue (SAR) resources to render assistance. Over the next three-quarters of an hour, authorities determined that the container 301184 contained a cargo of activated carbon pellets. Just forward of this bay were two containers loaded with barrels of camphene-90 wax, a class 4.1 dangerous cargo. As there was concern about the proximity of this class of cargo to the fire, permission to enter the harbour was denied and VTS directed the vessel to anchorage Bravo (B).

The wind and sea conditions stopped the fire tug CFAV Firebird from proceeding beyond the middle harbour and prevented the other surface SAR vessels from getting alongside the vessel for any length of time to assist. Plans to airlift military fire fighting teams to the vessel were drawn up, but had to be discarded due to the extreme weather conditions. During the evening and with the vessel rolling 10º, the crew continued to fight the fire by applying boundary cooling as it slowly spread to adjacent containers. By midnight the fire had climbed to the third tier and was thought to have spread to four containers. Throughout the night, various surface SAR units were tasked and relieved each other. At approximately 0630, the next morning an ocean-going salvage tug, the Ryan Leet, entered into a Lloyds Open Form 20004 agreement (LOF 2000) with the owners of the vessel. The Ryan Leet arrived on the scene at approximately 0900, but was unable to assist due to the high winds and seas.

At approximately 1040, the vessel's crew started opening containers for a more direct fire-fighting effort and by 1300, reported that two containers (300984 and 301184) were confirmed extinguished. At 1300, a harbour pilot boarded the vessel to assess the situation and liaise between the vessel and the various federal, provincial and municipal agencies ashore. By 1400, the situation onboard the Kitano was considered under control and the vessel was cleared to enter the middle harbour. The vessel weighed anchor and, with the assistance of a harbour pilot, entered the middle harbour. At 1620, the Kitano dropped anchor in anchorage one. Shortly afterwards the vessel's crew resumed their fire fighting effort and opened a third container (300986).

Photo 2 - The Ryan Leet alongside the Kitano

Photo 2.  The Ryan Leet alongside the Kitano

With the vessel safely anchored, a four-man military fire team with thermal imaging equipment boarded the vessel to carry out a fire assessment. Shortly after the military fire assessment team boarded the vessel, a seven-person salvage fire team also boarded in order to assist with the firefighting efforts. At 1655, the Ryan Leet came alongside the Kitano and started to fight the fire in container 300986 using two fire monitors. At 1700, the vessel's crew was stood down and relieved by the seven firefighters from the salvage company. At 1810, the vessel's crew rejoined the fire fighting effort and at 1940, the harbour pilot/liaison was relieved by his replacement. At 2050 the fire in container 300986 was confirmed extinguished. The final container (301186) was opened up at 2115, and one hour later at 2215, the last of the four (loaded) containers was confirmed extinguished. With the firefighting efforts now complete, the firefighters as well as the Ryan Leet remained on scene to monitor the situation and relieve the vessel's own crew.

Photo 3 - Fire Damaged Containers

Photo 3.  Fire Damaged Containers

On the morning of 24 March 2001, the Kitano was cleared by VTS to proceed to the container pier in Fairview Cove. At 0750, the vessel weighed anchor and under the escort of the Ryan Leet and two harbour tugs, proceeded to the Ceres container terminal. At 0940, the Kitano was secured alongside and the damaged containers as well as those adjacent to the fire were removed and inspected. Crews from both the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Fire Service and the salvage company stood by the vessel until the following day as normal cargo operations resumed. On the morning of 26 March 2001, after discharging cargo destined for the port, the Kitano departed Halifax.

Injuries to Persons

None of the vessel's personnel was injured.

Damage to the Vessel and Cargo

Other than some superficial damage to the coating on the hatch cover in way of the containers, there was no apparent damage to the vessel.

Shortly after the vessel was secured alongside, 16 containers including the 15 directly involved in or in close proximity to the fire were removed from the vessel for inspection and assessment. Only one container (300986) loaded with hard cover books had a deep seated fire which required additional attention by the HRM Fire Service. Of the 15 containers removed from the area of the fire, all but one suffered varying degrees of fire, smoke and water damage. The sixteenth container removed had been stored in a cargo hold and contained an identical cargo of the activated carbon pellets as container 301184. An inspection of this container did not reveal a problem with its cargo.

Damage to the Environment

There was no apparent damage caused to the ocean environment.

Vessel Certification

The Kitano was crewed, certified, and equipped in accordance with existing regulations.

Personnel Certification

The master and watch officers of the Kitano were certificated for the class of their vessel and for the type of voyage.

Personnel History

The master had 30 years experience at sea and approximately three years as commanding officer. He had joined the vessel in Singapore five weeks earlier. This was his second trip on a container ship.


The wind and sea conditions encountered as the vessel departed New York were recorded as winds from the east-northeast at force 7 and an air temperature of 7ºC. At the time of the occurrence these conditions had deteriorated to winds from the east at force 8, with an air temperature of 4ºC. At the height of the occurrence, the weather had further deteriorated to winds from the east-northeast at force 10 with an air temperature of 1ºC.

Activated Carbon Pellets

Photo 4 - GC IPH Activated Carbon Pellets

Photo 4.  GC IPH Activated Carbon Pellets

The container in which the fire started contained 14 - 115 kg drums and 288 - 44 kg open mesh bags of activated carbon pellets impregnated with potassium hydroxide (caustic potash). The bags of carbon pellets were bundled and plastic wrapped onto 14 wooden pallets. The activated carbon pellets are commonly used for the desulphurisation of gases and the removal of acidic contaminants such as hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride and mercaptans.

A second container with 360 - 44 kg open mesh bags of an identical cargo was also being carried onboard the vessel at the time of the occurrence. Similar to the first container, the cargo of carbon pellets was bundled and plastic wrapped onto 18 wooden pallets. Each pallet of cargo had an estimated volume of approximately 1.5 m3. Neither the second container nor its cargo was directly involved in the incident.


Photo 5 - The CFAV Firebird

Photo 5.  The CFAV Firebird

Immediately after the Kitano informed Halifax VCS of a container fire onboard, the JRCC assumed the role of SAR mission co-ordinator and tasked three surface units, the CFAV Firebird, the CCGS Earl Grey and the CCGC Sambro as well as three Department of National Defence (DND) SAR aircraft. Due to the extreme weather conditions, all the SAR resources were limited in their SAR capabilities.

The three SAR aircraft were forced to return to their base to await improved weather conditions, the CFAV Firebird could only proceed as far as Maughers Beach while the CCGS Earl Grey and the CCGC Sambro were forced to heave to and monitor the situation. Several hours later the HMCS Moncton and the HMCS Goose Bay, with quickly assembled ad hoc fire teams, were tasked by the DND Military Operations Centre (MOC). At approximately 0500, the CCGS Sir William Alexander relieved the CCGS Earl Grey.

Shortly after midnight on 23 March 2001, the JRCC determined that there was no longer any further risk to life and terminated its role as the SAR mission co-ordinator. The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) Regional Operations Centre assumed the role of lead agency under the auspices of Environmental Response. As the fire-fighting capabilities of all the previously tasked surface units had proven inadequate in the existing sea and weather conditions, an attempt was made by the CCG to procure the services of the Ryan Leet, a sea-going tug with enhanced firefighting abilities. By then the owners of the Ryan Leet were already in negotiations with the owners of the Kitano for a LOF 2000 and therefore declined to enter into negotiations with the CCG. The next morning, the master of the Kitano signed a LOF 2000 with Secunda Marine Services Ltd., the owners of the Ryan Leet, and the tug sailed to assist. When the Ryan Leet arrived on scene, weather and sea conditions prevented it from offering any direct assistance and it was forced to heave to and stand-by.

At 1200, the role of lead agency was turned over to Transport Canada Marine Safety and one hour later a Halifax pilot, sent to liaise between the vessel and the authorities ashore, boarded the Kitano. With the situation now under control, the harbour master, who would soon assume the role of lead agency, cleared the vessel to enter the harbour and proceed to anchorage one.

The HRM Fire Service was prepared to intervene once the vessel was secured alongside, but as its members are not trained or equipped to fight shipboard fires while a vessel is in the stream, they too were unable to offer assistance. Discussions that morning between the HRM Fire Service and DND for DND assistance were unsuccessful. A verbal request for DND assistance was made by the HRM Fire Service using the term "Aid to Civilian Powers". This term had been used in the past by the HRM Fire Service to obtain DND assistance but on this occasion the request was denied. It was not until the HRM Fire Service made an official request through the HRM Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), through the Provincial EMO to the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness that DND agreed to task the CFAV Firebird and put a fire team onboard to assess the situation. The military assessment team was under instructions to assess, but not to engage the fire.

By the time clearance was granted for the Kitano to enter the harbour, the fire in two of the four containers involved in the fire had been extinguished. The harbour master believed that once the vessel anchored inside the harbour, DND firefighters would board the Kitano and extinguish the fire in the other two containers. As the vessel prepared to enter the harbour, the harbour master learned that the services of the CFAV Firebird and the DND firefighters would only be available in an assessment capacity.

The harbour master was soon in contact with Secunda Marine Services Ltd. and informed them that the Kitano was on its way in, and the extent of DND participation to be expected once the vessel was anchored. Secunda Marine Services Ltd. completed its preparations, and, with a seven-person fire fighting and salvage team, proceeded to meet the vessel at anchorage one.

When the Kitano was finally anchored safely in the inner harbour, the military assessment team boarded the vessel, followed by the salvage company fire team. The salvage company firefighters together with the team from DND completed an initial assessment of the situation. The salvage company firefighters then requested the Ryan Leet to come alongside and using its fire monitors, the salvage tug directed water at the flames emanating from a container which the Kitano's crew had opened immediately after anchoring. Once the visible flames were sufficiently knocked down, the Ryan Leet commenced boundary cooling and the firefighters, having already relieved the vessel's exhausted crew, commenced attacking the fire using fire hoses and portable equipment.

By late that evening, the fire in the two remaining containers had been extinguished. As a precautionary measure, the salvage company firefighters and the Ryan Leet remained with the vessel throughout the night. The following morning the vessel was cleared to proceed to the Ceres container pier where the damaged containers were removed from the vessel.

Fire Safety in Canadian Ports, Harbours and Seaway

Since 1989, at least ten5 major fires have occurred aboard vessels of various types and sizes across Canada involving a response by municipal shore-based firefighters.

Occurrences involving the following four vessels are of particular interest: H.M. Griffith, Ambassador, Petrolab and Windoc.

On 27 September 1989, the bulk carrier H.M. Griffith experienced a fire in the tunnel area under its No. 3 cargo hold. Post-occurrence concerns were raised, in a St. Lawrence Seaway internal report, about communications and coordination of firefighting efforts between the vessel's crew and the municipal fire department. The report recommended that the St. Lawrence Seaway arrange a meeting with local fire chiefs to establish procedures and clarify roles between the Seaway and municipal fire departments.

In December 1994, during the unloading of a cargo of rock phosphate in the Port of Belledune, New Brunswick, a fire broke out in the conveyor belt system of the bulk carrier Ambassador. The combined efforts of the ship's crew and several shore-based fire departments were required to bring the fire under control; it was fully extinguished some 28 hours later.

In Canadian ports and harbours, the responsibility for risk assessment and emergency plans generally rests with the local harbour master or port official, while firefighting is provided by the local fire department. Concerned that many municipal fire departments may not have properly trained personnel to fight shipboard fires, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) made these three recommendations:

The Department of Transport [should] conduct a special audit of fire-fighting facilities at Canadian ports and harbours under its jurisdiction to ensure that an adequate year-round capability exists to contain shipboard fires. (M96-06, issued October 1996)

The Department of Transport [should], in collaboration with ports and harbour authorities, take measures to ensure that shore-based fire brigades expected to support on-board fire-fighting receive appropriate training. (M96-07, issued October 1996)

The Department of Transport [should] take appropriate measures to ensure that on-board fire-fighting capabilities of vessels in Canadian ports and harbours are functional and readily available during cold weather operations. (M96-08, issued October 1996)

In its response, the Department of Transport (TC) indicated that the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) is responsible for the standards and training of shore-based fire brigades. The CAFC has no jurisdiction over non-member fire departments. The majority of public harbours have only a local volunteer force to fight small fires, and their training generally does not include entering and fighting fires in restricted places. TC also indicated that there is no legislated requirement for public harbours and ports to engage in firefighting activities aboard vessels.

In May 1997, the CAFC forwarded a questionnaire to selected municipalities to determine their firefighting capabilities and the type and extent of assistance that could be called upon by operators of marine terminals in the event of a fire on board a vessel in port. Information provided to the TSB indicates that fire departments in the Welland Canal area were not sent copies of this survey, and therefore did not have an opportunity to participate. Overall, the survey did not receive wide enough distribution to provide enough useful information to evaluate the scope of marine firefighting experience among municipal fire departments.

On the evening of 19 July 1997, an explosion and fire occurred on board the tanker Petrolab alongside the government wharf at St. Barbe, Newfoundland, while the crew was washing cargo oil tanks in preparation for loading cargo. The ship's owner was killed and three crew members were injured by the explosion; one later died in hospital.6 The combined efforts of two CCG vessels and several shore-based fire departments were deployed to fight the fire. The local fire department was not equipped with foam and had no training in fighting shipboard - in particular, oil tanker - fires. As a result, the fire departments did not bring the shipboard fire under control in its early stages and burning paint on the vessel's outer hull spread the fire to the creosote-impregnated piles of the government wharf. Both the ship and the government wharf were destroyed before the fire was fully extinguished some 63 hours later.

In August 2001, while proceeding downbound under a bridge in the Welland Canal, at Allanburg, Ontario, the bulk carrier Windoc was struck by the bridge's vertical-lift span, which was lowered before the vessel had passed clear of the bridge structure. The vessel's wheelhouse and funnel were destroyed. The vessel drifted downstream, caught fire, grounded about 800 metres from the bridge and was declared a constructive total loss. The bridge sustained structural damage, and the Welland Canal was closed to vessel traffic for two days. The Thorold fire department, which was first to respond, had little or no experience or training in shipboard firefighting and was not equipped with suitable boats for transporting firefighters to and from the shore and the Windoc. Boats were provided by another fire department. Difficulties were experienced by the responding fire departments in establishing a sufficient water pressure to fight the fire. At the time of the Windoc occurrence, there were no firefighting procedures nor memorandum of understanding between the St. Lawrence Seaway and local fire departments in the Canal area.

Other occurrences, in particular a cargo fire on board the Southgate in 1998, further highlighted inadequacies in the efficacy of shipboard firefighting by shore-based fire departments.