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Explosion of a topside ballast tank on board M.V. "Nego Kim"
off Dampier, Western Australia on 18 November 2001
1. The Incident

1.1 The Hong Kong registered bulk carrier "Nego Kim" was on a time charter, to load scrap steel at the ports of Fremantle, Adelaide and Dampier for discharge in Indonesia and Singapore.  "Nego Kim" departed from Adelaide, Australia for Dampier, Western Australia at about 2000 hours on 9 November 2001.  At about 0200 hours on 17 November 2001, "Nego Kim" arrived Dampier with about 17,200 tonnes of scrap steel on board.  At about 1630 hours on 18 November 2001, while she was waiting for her berth, an explosion occurred in the No.1 port Topside Water Ballast Tank (TBT) causing substantial damage to the topside tank (see Figures 1 and 2).  The incident resulted in the death of 5 crewmembers and 3 other crewmembers remaining missing, presumed dead, who were engaged in spray painting work of No.1 port TBT.

2. Findings

2.1 The proximate cause of the explosion was ignition of accumulated flammable mixture of air and paint fumes present in the No.1 port TBT.  Factors that appears to have contributed to the explosion are listed below.  These are associated with procedures that did not comply with the paint manufacturer's data sheet:-
  • the force ventilation of the tank was not adequate leading to the creation of an explosive atmosphere;
  • the volume of thinners used in the mixing of the epoxy paint was far in excess of the specified 5%;
  • the portable lighting in used were not intrinsically safe or explosion proof.
2.2 The Master, the C/O, the Bosun, the rest of the deck crew and the ship management company did not recognize the potential risks associated with the use of hydrocarbon based paint and organic solvent in an enclosed space.  The ship's crew did not fully follow the safety procedures in the Safety Manual and the ship management company did not supply proper equipment.

2.3 The explosion, the casualties of the deck crew and the serious damage to the TBT would have been avoided had proper ventilation and strict control of ignition source been carried out.

2.4 The accident was in general caused by the lack of safety awareness on the potential hazards associated with spraying painting within an enclosed space by the ship management company and those on board the "Nego Kim".  In short, the explosion occurred as a result of a failure of the safety system on board to prevent an unsafe condition (an explosive atmosphere) coming into contact with a hazard (a source of ignition).

3. The Lessons

3.1 Important lessons should be learnt from this incident :-

  1. When painting in enclosed spaces proper ventilation of space is essential. Paint fumes form an explosion mixture at low concentrations. Being heavier than air they tend to accumulate at the bottom of a space, particularly if contained by deep frames or floors. Such fumes must be exhausted from a space; a good circulation of air established and atmosphere in the enclosed space must be continuously monitored.

  2. The paint manufacturers/suppliers instructions must be followed and data sheets carried on board, read and understood by all concerned. For spray painting the correct nozzle size should be used, and unnecessary thinning down of paint by large amount of solvent should be avoided.

  3. All electrical equipment used must be of a type approved for use in a flammable atmosphere.

  4. Safety system in ship management should ensure that precise instructions for safe operation within enclosed spaces, the necessary information and equipment are provided to their ships, and that such instructions are being followed by their shipboard staff in carrying out the operation.

View towards the port shoulder of 'Nego Kim'

Figure 1 : View towards the port shoulder of "Nego Kim"


Damage of the port shoulder abeam to Hatch No.1

Figure 2 : Damage of the port shoulder abeam to Hatch No.1
(view from hatch cover)