At 0315 on August 13, 2016, under the control of the master, the Jaxon Aaron departed Wepfer Marine’s McKellar Lake fleeting area at mm 725.5 on the left descending bank just south of Memphis, Tennessee, en route to St. Louis, Missouri, with 15 dry cargo barges and 1 crane barge.
The vessel was manned by a master, pilot, chief engineer, mate, four deckhands, and one cook. At 1100, the pilot, who alternated watch with the master on a 6-hours-on/6-hours-off rotation schedule, assumed navigational control of the vessel, while the master retired to his stateroom. At the time, the vessel was at mm 765.3 proceeding upbound at a speed over ground of approximately 4.3 knots.
Around 1140, the fire alarm sounded in the wheelhouse, at which time the pilot observed smoke coming from the port side of the engine room. He stated that he did not notice any vibrations, unusual noises, or other irregularities before the fire alarm sounded. As the vessel was passing mm 769.2 proceeding upbound at a speed over ground of approximately 4.1 knots, the pilot called the mate via VHF radio on standby channel 61 to inform him about the fire in the engine room. The radio broadcast was overheard by a deckhand who was tightening the wire connections of the barges at the head of the flotilla. Looking aft, the deckhand saw smoke emanating from the port side of the engine room and began to make his way back to the vessel to assist.
The pilot then sounded the general alarm. Within an estimated 2–5 minutes, the vessel experienced a total loss of electrical power and steering control. In response, the pilot took both main diesel engines out of gear and broadcasted a request for assistance over VHF radio on channel 16. The towing vessel Miss Allie, which was located about 7 miles downriver at the time, responded to the distress call and began to proceed northbound toward the Jaxon Aaron.
The chief engineer, who was in his bathroom, noticed the intensity of the lighting in his stateroom fluctuating just prior to the loss of electrical power. He headed towards the starboardside entrance of the upper flat of the engine room on the main deck, where he observed near the port main diesel engine flames that he said were extending to the top of the engine room. He attempted to manually release the CO2 located near the starboard entrance to the engine room and then attempted to do the same with the system on the port side. He stated to investigators that he “dropped the hose, pulled the pin, and closed the door,” before pulling the manual emergency shutdown cables on both main diesel engines and on both generators, but he did not see or hear any fire extinguishing agent being released.
The master, who stated that he had been awakened by the general alarm and the loss of electrical power, left his stateroom and entered the wheelhouse, where he saw black smoke and fire. He ordered the crew to begin the process for abandoning ship to the barge flotilla. Once all crewmembers were on the barge flotilla and accounted for, the master directed them to initiate the firefighting effort. Although they were able to set up the portable pumps, the crewmembers were forced to attempt the firefighting effort in the clothing they were wearing at the time because the vessel was not outfitted with firemen’s suits or other bunker gear. (At the time of the accident, the regulations for uninspected towing vessels did not require the Jaxon Aaron to carry firemen’s outfits.)
When forward movement had stopped, the vessel and flotilla of barges began drifting downriver with the current, stern first. The stern of the Jaxon Aaron partially grounded on the right descending bank near mm 768.2 and the barge flotilla began to swing around with the current. About 1225, the Miss Allie arrived on scene to assist the crew and assume control of the barge flotilla.
Another towing vessel, named the Joe Ellis, which had been upriver at a mooring location in Osceola, Arkansas, also responded to the initial distress call; it arrived on scene around 1300. Local shoreside firefighters attempted to assist but were unsuccessful in reaching the Jaxon Aaron due to the remote location and lack of suitable access roads. Coast Guard personnel arrived on scene at 1609 with the assistance of the towing vessel Amy Ross.
At 1634, the firefighting effort was suspended due to safety concerns. Flames were still visible in the upper decks of the vessel. The fire burned itself out at an unknown time later that evening.
On August 15, at 0854, the Jaxon Aaron was taken under tow by the Janice E Strait and moved to the First Marine shipyard at mm 12 on the Tennessee River in Calvert City, Kentucky, for repair.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the fire aboard the towing vessel Jaxon Aaron was the failure of the power assembly components on the port main diesel engine’s no. 15 cylinder. Contributing to the extent of the fire damage was the substantial use of combustible materials in the interior spaces and the chief engineer’s unfamiliarity with the firefighting equipment.
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