Bravery of sailors, coastguards pay dividends | Sunday Observer
Fire on oil tanker:

Bravery of sailors, coastguards pay dividends

6 September, 2020

The nearly three-day battle to douse the fire on a crude oil tanker in Sri Lanka’s Eastern seas has been brought under control following a strenuous fire-fighting effort by Sri Lankan sailors and the Indian coast guards yesterday.

The crude oil tanker MT New Diamond chartered by the Indian Oil Company (IOC) had been sailing from the port of Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait to the Indian port of Paradip when disaster struck at around 8 am on September 3.

The vessel sailing under the flag of Panama carrying 270,000 metric tons of crude oil and 117,000 metric tons of diesel had caught fire nearly 38 nautical miles from the Sangaman Kanda point in Sri Lanka’s Eastern seas.

Since then the Sri Lanka Navy with the Sri Lanka Air Force and their Indian counterparts and local authorities have been working around the clock to control the fire and avert what would have been the world largest ecological disaster. Marine experts said a possible oil spill of this scale would be the worst marine environmental catastrophe seen in recent times.

The ecological disaster was averted thanks to the untiring efforts by the Sri Lanka Navy, the first responder according to Sri Lanka’s National Oil spill contingency plan. Following a struggle for over 50 hours, the fire on the vessel was brought under control by Friday night according to the Indian Coast Guard. However, according to authorities, it would be days before the threat could be completely eliminated.

According to Director General of Operations of Sri Lanka Navy Rear Admiral Y.N Jayarathna, the fire on the vessel had occurred in the boiler room.

“Two crew members had suffered injuries while a third had gone missing,” he said adding that they do not believe the third crew member had survived based on witness accounts. According to Jayarathna, the fire had then spread to the superstructure of the ship.

General Manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara said the fire had reached the engine room between 5 - 6 pm on the day. “This is when the black smoke started to appear,” he said. According to Kumara, crude oil tankers are designed to have space between the engine and the cargo hold as well as a double hull.


“Therefore, if the captain had taken steps to contain the fire in the engine room the situation could have been averted,” he said. But according to Kumara, instead, the Captain had ordered to seal the area engulfed in fire and move out. Therefore, as the fire raged on Friday, around 4 am two explosions were heard from the ship, while the Commanding officer of an Indian Coast Guard ship assisting in the fire-fighting efforts reported a crack on the port quarter of the ship. According to Dr. Kumara, the ship had begun to tilt as a result. The wind and undercurrents had also begun to push the ship towards Sri Lanka’s coast causing serious concern and alarm among authorities and public alike. “The Mission had to continue while the ship was gradually floating towards Sri Lanka,” Dr. Kumara said. By Friday the ship was 22 nautical miles from the coast while it had been 38 nautical miles off the coast when the fire had erupted. As the fire raged on 22 crew members who served on board the vessel were rescued. Currently, one member is receiving treatment at the Kalmunai Hospital, according to the Sri Lanka Navy. According to Navy Spokesman Captain Indika De Silva, the uninjured crew members are assisting in the fire-fighting efforts.

While the fire has now been brought under control, the 50-hour mission by the Sri Lankan and Indian forces was a herculean effort. At one time fears were rife that the ship could explode if fire would spread to the cargo hold. The effects would have been devastating to the country’s marine ecosystem. More parties including foreign experts are expected to join in the continuous fight over the weekend after Sri Lanka called for support to avert a possible environmental disaster.

According to Rear Admiral Jayarathna, the Sri Lanka Navy has deployed three of its ships and two fast attack craft to combat the fire. The Navy is being assisted by one vessel of the Sri Lanka coast guard, one Indian coast guard ship, and one belonging to the Indian Navy. Meanwhile, two tugboats belonging to the Hambantota Port and a larger tug boat belonging to the shipping company are also assisting in the efforts.

The Air Force also chipped in to combat the fire. Air Force Spokesman Group Captain Dushan Wijesinghe said it had deployed a Beech-craft airplane to observe the latest situation of the distressed ship along with a MI 17 helicopter.

“The observations of the Beech-craft airplane are being reported to Air Force and Navy headquarters,” he said. The Air Force was also making Bambi bucket drops to douse the fire.

Despite the many dangers the Sri Lanka Navy continuously expressed its confidence in controlling the situation. “There is no threat of an oil spill” Rear Admiral Jayarathna assured. According to him the chance of an oil spill was slim as there is no threat of the ship running aground or breaking apart. But had this occurred Sri Lanka had already planned to face its devastating effects. According to the Director-General of the MEPA Attorney-at law Dharshani Lahandapura an oil spill could have had a devastating effect on the world’s marine environment.

 According to Lahandapura the effects on the coast from Kirinda to the Eastern region of the country which has an environmentally sensitive area would have been devastating.

Dr. Kumara said the oil mixed with seawater would have turned into sludge. “We would have only been able to clear 60 percent of an oil spill of this magnitude,” he said adding that it could have ruined the coasts of popular tourist areas such as Nilaveli, Trincomalee and Arugam Bay. “The effects would have been long term. The sludge would have taken almost eight years to clear while the soil would probably take another 25 years to recover,” he said. He also said the area is known to have more Dolphins, Whales and Turtles than Mirissa and would have been the death knell for these species. “They are mammals that come to the surface to breathe but the sludge would affect that. We could have lost these species” he said.

“People in the area depend on tourism and their future could have been destroyed. So the issue will not only be environmental but also social and economic,” he said. While the authority’s first challenge was to contain the fire and move it away from the region, Lahandapura said the MEPA had focused on how to contain an oil spill if occurred. “We had to prepare as we would not have time to do so once it happens. The oil would have spread in a matter of 30 hours,” she said. MEPA had sought funds, and equipment to contain the oil spill from the few government agencies, she said. Even though the threat seems to have passed, discussions are ongoing at the Disaster Management Center, she added.

Lahandapura also said MEPA was ready to take legal action if an oil spill had taken place. According to her Sri Lanka is part of the International Maritime Organisation and is a signatory to the Civil Liability Convention. “Accordingly, if any disaster occurred legal action can be initiated against the owner, the manager of the shipping company and claim damage up to USD million 400,” she said.

The MEPA has already filed a complaint against the company with the Thirukkovil Police and is gathering information on the incident to support its case if the need arises. “We are already in contact with the owners and their Insurance agents,” she said adding that the government will take steps to claim damage if an oil spill occurred

But the danger now seems to have somewhat passed with the Indian Coast Guard announcing on Friday night that the MT New Diamond was now being towed into the deep sea, away from Sri Lanka’s coast. But according to Rear Admiral Jayarathna, it may take a few more days for the situation to be fully brought under control. “When MSC Daniella caught fire off the Coast of Colombo in 2017 it took nearly 10 days to contain,” he said.