Bigger fire boats needed in Houston Ship Channel, say pilots

The 57943 gt crude oil tanker Aframax River pictured in Istanbul on the 20 July 2014. Credit: Dietmar Hansenpusch

Two Houston pilots that have been recognised by the IMO for their role in protecting the lives of the crew of crude oil tanker Aframax River during a 90-minute blaze have expressed hopes the incident will prompt better firefighting facilities in the Houston Ship Channel.

Pilots Captain Michael G. McGee and Captain Michael C. Phillips averted a major tragedy when the 57943 gt Aframax River they were piloting broke down and burst into flames after colliding with mooring dolphins at around midnight on the 6 September 2016. The pair, who have 45 years piloting experience between them, were able to manoeuvre the vessel to a safe location without loss of life, serious damage to the pier structure and surround petro-chemical facilities, despite being surrounded by a towering walls of burning fuel for nearly 90 minutes.

It took an hour for fire boats to reach the blaze as the vessel was positioned in the middle of the 50 mile channel – fireboats are currently stationed at either end of the channel. Captain McGee said that he hoped that larger fireboats would be stationed in this area similar to the 343 New York harbour fireboats, which has one of the highest pumping capacity of any fireboat ever built. “In Houston with all its traffic and chemical ships we need something like this. If anything happens as a result of this incident it should be this,” he said. However, Capt. Phillips said that the decision to do so was “political” due to the costs involved.

Both Captain Philips and Captain McGee received the 2017 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for their actions on 27 November. Speaking to SAS, they said that Captain McGee managed to manoeuvre the stricken and blazing vessel away from surrounding ships and facilities, while Captain Phillips coordinated communications and firefighting efforts with the United States Coast Guard and numerous local fireboats.

The size of the tanker meant that it required two pilots to manoeuvre. Captain McGee said: “It was invaluable to have Captain Philips there [during the incident] with the size of the vessel it was all I could do to get the ship into a safe area.”

They added that the safety risks have increased as larger vessels are beginning to become a more common occurrence in the Houston Ship Channel. Capt Philips said: “Shipping channels are not getting any bigger but ships are getting a whole lot bigger and faster.

We’ve previously never had ships of this size…no one asked us about 300m ships, we would have said to dredge a new port far away but no one bothered to ask us.”

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