Blaze on ferry 'exposed failings in safety drill'

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A fire on a cross-Channel ferry which led to its evacuation exposed a catalogue of failings in safety procedures, according to the accident inquiry.

It also reveals that the much-criticised removal of search and rescue helicopters from a nearby RAF station to one in Suffolk caused a 20-minute delay in firefighters reaching the ship which could have had serious consequences had the fire been more serious.

The Sally Star blaze, which occurred on 25 August 1994, when it was 10 kilometres out of Ramsgate en route to Dunkirk, was caused by fuel oil leaking on to a hot exhaust pipe. While it was confined to the engine room, it continued to burn for three hours because of the failure of the auxiliary generators and consequently of emergency fire pumps. More than 100 people, mainly crew, were evacuated from the ship and two people - one them a firefighter - suffered minor injuries. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch's report published yesterday reveals a number of concerns. It found that halon gas, used to snuff out fires quickly in emergencies, was not released until half an hour after the start of the fire and then only after some of the gas, which can only be used after crew have been given breathing equipment, had leaked out.

The general alarm system was inadequate in that it needed a permanent attendant to operate it and the public address system failed because it was not linked to the emergency generators. Emergency lighting in the ship's accommodation "was not fully effective due to defective bulbs", the report said.

The fire was put out with the help of Kent Fire Brigade, but the incident also highlighted a number of shortcomings with its procedures and problems caused by the removal of the emergency helicopters from RAF Manston, near the Channel. The helicopters now have to fly from RAF Wattisham in Suffolk and the report says that the fire teams were ready at Manston waiting to be picked up at 5.03am. However, the Sea King helicopter from Wattisham only left a 5.00am and arrived at Manston 21 minutes later. It took off with the firefighters aboard at 5.29am, which means that the removal of helicopters from Manston, two years ago as a result of spending cutbacks, caused a delay of about 20 minutes.

The report says the fire brigade failed to alert the Coastguard that it was ready and waiting at the airfield and this breakdown in communication could have been serious had the situation on the ship deteriorated.

A spokesman for Sally Line said it had "taken action to deal with all the matters raised by the report". Indeed, the report says Sally Line, which runs two cross-Channel ships, has made more than a dozen changes in procedures and equipment since the incident.