NTSB to investigate cause of Norway blast

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

By Joe Mozingo,
The Miami Herald

The National Transportation Safety Board plans to investigate whether age helped cause the boiler explosion that killed four workers and injured 15 other employees aboard the 41-year-old SS Norway as it docked at the Port of Miami-Dade this weekend, a member of the board said Monday.

“It’s an old ship, so we will be looking at that for sure,” said NTSB member Carol Carmody, who announced the investigation. “I’m told boilers can go on for a long time. They’re not something that’s replaced every couple of years.”

The testimony of the injured workers and the results of autopsies will play a key role in determining what happened.

Nine members of the National Transportation Safety Board were here Monday and said it was far too early to speculate on possible causes. Investigators had not inspected the engine room because they were awaiting air-quality tests to see if it would be safe to enter.

They interviewed the captain and the chief engineer, who was in his cabin at the time of the blast. “As far as he knew, all operations were normal at the time,” Carmody said.

Three of the four boilers were operating just after 6:30 a.m. Sunday when the blast occurred. They had gone through “heavy maintenance” in 1999 and routine cleaning 10 days ago, Carmody said.

Norwegian Cruise Lines officials say the original boiler was rebuilt in 1999. Former workers for Norwegian say a fire gutted that room that same year when the ship was off the coast of Barcelona.

“We had no engine room basically. It melted everything,” said Lynne Langley, who said she worked in a ship gift shop. “The cables were melted to the floor, we’re talking massive cables. It was an enormous fire.”

The U.S. Coast Guard also conducted a routine inspection of the Bahamas-registered ship about 10 days before in St. Thomas. The NTSB had not yet received that report on Monday. But that inspection might not reveal much about what caused the disaster.

“I understand that an inspection like that would be very limited, just walking into the boiler room and looking at some of the operations,” Carmody said.

A former boiler inspector for the Coast Guard said foreign ships, such as the Norway, receive nothing close to the rigorous inspections U.S. flag ships get.

To land in U.S. ports, foreign ships must go through a Safety of Life at Sea inspection, which is meant to ensure a vessel is minimally seaworthy, said Marc B. Wilson, a Tampa-based merchant marine, who was a Coast Guard officer and marine-safety inspector for 20 years.

“They’re concerned about the rudder working, they’re concerned about navigation, they’re concerned about lifeboats and firefighting,” Wilson said. “They don’t check the boiler.”

Right before Sunday’s blast, the boilers emitted a low vibration, then a large one. The lights went out, and the vibration prompted the fire sprinklers to go on, just as the explosion ripped through walls and floors.

Carmody said one victim was killed 30 feet from the boiler room, another died in a room right above it. A third victim was right inside the room, and it wasn’t clear where the fourth person was located.

One worker, Ruben Garcia, was burned while dumping the trash on the Vizcaya deck, according to Charles Lipcon, an attorney who has represented ship workers in personal-injury cases. Garcia is recovering at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Lipcon said people in the engine room rarely get the time to see the light of day. “When you get down to the engine room, you’re talking about Dante’s Inferno down there,” he said.

But a spokeswoman for Norwegian, Susan Robison, said jobs in the engine room are sought after. “The workers who work the boilers are very specialized,” she said. “Most of them have been there for 15 years.”