Smoke on the water

Adapted from a story I wrote for Fire Brigade Employees’ Union ‘NSW Firefighter’ Magazine Oct 2010

Incident: 3 storey superstrucure fire on board bulk coal carrier “Ming Mercy”

Date: Thursday 7th August, 1997 – “D” Platoon

Where: 3.3 nautical miles off coast of Port Kembla NSW Australia

Fire Service: NSW Fire Brigades (now Fire and Rescue NSW)

It was a crystal clear winter’s day on the south coast of NSW. Fire ‘station work’ (cleaning and equipment maintenance) to be done in the morning, exercise program to organise for the afternoon, and a fire drill planned on the Port Kembla foreshore in the middle of all of that – just another day shift for firies in Wollongong, NSW.

With Station work done, I headed down to the wharves with my crew on the back of Wollongong’s fire truck for our fire drill at about 10am.

No sooner had we got to the wharf we received a fire call via radio (comms) to report to Wharf No.6 (less than 500m away) to meet up with a police tug as there was a ‘boat’ alight nearby. Details were sketchy and as we arrived at the Police vessel, information was changing constantly. As we loaded fire gear from the fire trucks to the police boat I remember being told it wasn’t a fishing boat, it was a bigger vessel. Still thinking it couldn’t be anything bigger than 10m or so, we piled as much firefighting gear onto the police tug as we could. We really tried to set up for a worse case scenario as a matter of habit, but we couldn’t imagine what was waiting for us. Off we ‘sailed’ with an air of excitement about the aborted fire drill for a boat ride on the harbour.

As we sped further and further out to sea, the mood changed. The swell was getting bigger (there was an ocean swell of 3m running that day) and information came in that it was not a boat, it was a ‘ship’. We all understood the difference in the wording and as we headed toward a full size bulk coal carrier taking up half the horizon, with large volumes of smoke issuing from the superstructure, statements arose like “what the f*** do we do here!?”. The ship had the words ‘Ming Mercy’ on the side. It was a Taiwanese vessel waiting to pick up coal from Port Kembla. We were just over 6 kms out to sea, and smoke was blowing across the water, this ship was on fire.

More information came through the senior officers phone telling us that possibly all levels of the superstructure were alight, that at least one member of the vessel was suffering burns and smoke inhalation, that some crew members were reported missing, and that none of the vessel’s crew spoke English. Could it get any worse?

As we pulled up alongside the vessel looking skyward to the deck of the ship, the first hurdle awaited us. The only access on board was a dodgy rope-style Taiwanese ‘Jacobs’ ladder, which was being smashed by the swell and seemed like it took an eternity to reach up onto the deck above. I felt like Jack looking up the beanstalk into the sky above. When the question was asked “who’s going on first?” a few experienced comrades took a step back, and the more naïve of us took a step forward. So on we went, taking turns trying to climb this ladder in full fire bunker gear. We had to time our jumps from the Police tug to the narrow rope ladder, with the police tug pulling away after each jump so as not to crush us against the side of the ship. One of the last to jump nearly got his ankles crushed, so the Inspector aborted the treacherous access and had to command the incident from the police vessel.

Only a handful of us got on board, maybe ten or so, before the dangerous ladder climb was aborted, and a helicopter was considered to get firies and resources on board (some hours later). Once on board we tended to the injured and started loading equipment on by hauling (including spare air cylinders). That meant that eight or so of us plus three station officers on board faced a three storey metal superstructure well alight, with persons reported. We had four standard breathing apparatus sets, four long duration breathing apparatus sets, a Taiwanese fire booster pump, some old fire equipment from the vessel, and a full size coal vessel/ship now threatening to list (tip over due to weight of water on board). A small group of us fought that fire for around seven hours without decent rest, re-hydration, or backup – but it got worse.

As we made our way to each level and tried internal attack on the fires, the water being pumped in was gathering on the floor to the raised door entries, making a 20cm deep pooled water height on the floor. This made the ship more unstable in the high seas, but gave us a 2 foot pool of water to lay in throughout the structure to be able to get deeper than we should have been able to, to fight the fire. Not something you learn at fire school, or on land for that matter. In fact, I’m not sure anyone has ever done it before.

After being beaten back by flashovers and superheated gases internally, we figured out that if we held onto each other, arm in arm in pairs, with a thermal imaging camera and a line of hose, we could force our way into the structure, laying in the warm contaminated water for protection as we got deeper in, and slowly extinguish the internal fires. After several hours of extreme conditions using this method, we finally got into the seat of the fire on each level and started to get on top of the fires throughout the steel encased timber and plaster structure. That murky layer of water on the floor saved us, but also seeped into our boots, PPC, cuts, abrasions, hair and face. Backup crews were yet to be flown in, but it got worse.

As we made our way through the levels, we got to the ‘Bridge’. We were told that the power was isolated, but it wasn’t (difficult to ascertain considering the structure). To my crews laughter and jibes, I kept fogetting the walls were live, and I was electrocuted several times, like Bart Simpson touching a toaster, as we moved through the smoke, along the handrails inside the bridge while extinguishing fire in that area. Eventually we had to retreat the mostly metal (and now electrified) room, and fight that particular part from the outside. But it got worse.

After several hours fighting a multiple level fire that was contained by steel walls and floors, with less than a dozen firefighters where usually ten times that would be considered safe to use, 6 km out at sea, with heavy swell, a listing ship, electric shocks, and without back-up (which required several breathing apparatus cylinder changes), we finally made some impact on the fire. As the first helicopter landed with some more supplies and back up crews, we thought our work was done. But then the winter’s cold afternoon set in with the sun dropping fast. Having been drenched for over 7 hrs, exhausted and nowhere to hide from the sea breeze, we waited for a chopper flight off the deck. I have never been so cold.

So we sat…. cold, tired, hungry, thirsty, electrocuted, drenched (ears, eyes, nose mouth and body) from water which had bodily fluids and medicines in it from the hospital part of the ship, with cuts in our feet from debri from that filthy contaminated water, thinking about how to contact our families and let them know we were ok, and wondering what was going on back on land. As we waited on that cold deck we were surrounded by the smoke on the water from the fire we had just extinguished and the usual fire in the sky across the Port Kembla horizon from the steel works.

The food arrived on deck via helicopter just as we were leaving, so like a good ‘ol fire staging tradition, the food never got to those that needed it most. When we got back to Port Kembla fire station the sight was surreal. Dark had set in, and the floodlight lit staging area had dozens of fire trucks from all over Sydney and south coast. All were waiting there patiently, trying their best no doubt to get out there and back us up, but without transport.

The staging area looked like a concert or a fete from a distance, after what we’d been through. Flashing lights of emergency vehicles, BBQ’s and drink stalls. There were hundreds of people chatting and laughing, with the hum of voices, engines and generators. I saw friends and comrades that I hadn’t seen for years, a typical reunion type vibe you get amongst first responders at major emergency incidents. The irony was, that this staging area was literally miles from the incident, there was no smoke, there was no fire to be seen.

The group of firies that fought along side me that day were already good mates, but as we showered and warmed up, tagging and bagging our contaminated gear, we had a sense that we had done something special, something that few had ever done or ever will do anywhere in the world. Any other structure like that on land would have been fought defensively, from the kerb, and burnt to the ground, but because of the steel frames and compartmentation it stood up to the blaze and turned into a big oven. We probably could have retreated, but we were determined to extinguish it (probably in the hope that we would have time to still play touch footy). The officers on board commented weeks later that no matter how much they tried to rest and rehydrate us, we just kept going back in, hour after hour.

A fire department ‘unit citation’ for this incident was given to anyone who turned up, had a pie, and went home. And rightly so – some of those pies were dangerous, but the formal recommendation for individual meritorious awards for the initial firefighting crews (who put the fire out) was rejected by the NSW Fire Brigades Awards Committee, and recommendation by the crew to supply heat alarms with SCBA was also rejected. The incident never got much coverage, it was toward the end of the Thredbo landslide, which understandably was still dominating the media.

Nonetheless, the ‘Ming Mercy few’ know what happened and what we did that day. Arguably one of the largest ship fires in Australia’s history, and we were first in – seven hours straight, fighting side by side to extinguish one of the most difficult, dangerous, and challenging fires we, and most firefighters in Australia, have ever seen.

– Darin Sullivan

[Online Marine safety investigation / report]

About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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