More than 400 people were safely evacuated from a car ferry that caught fire Sunday
off Greece’s Adriatic coast. Poor weather conditions made rescue difficult, but Italian and Greek helicopters and rescue teams managed to bring most of the passengers to safety. Unfortunately, there were 10 casualties.
The boat drifted in rough seas between Italy and Greece as passengers waited to be rescued. The cause of the fire is still unknown, and attempts to tow the ship to shore ended when the tow cables broke overnight. Italian and Albanian magistrates are debating whether to continue attempting to tow the boat for investigation.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2011 Recreational Boating Statistics Report listed 218 boating accidents that year involving a fire or explosion. Though there were losses in the ferry fire, passengers and rescuers worked together to bring most of the passengers safely to shore.
The problem with boat fires is that you cannot simply run across the street to escape it; the only way to escape a boat fire is to await rescue or go overboard, which can be nearly as dangerous.
HOW TO SURVIVE A BURNING SHIP
Thinking ahead of the best way to respond to a boat fire increases the probability you’ll remain calm and react correctly should one break out. Boat fires can go from smoke to inferno in minutes, so every moment counts. If possible, test safety equipment ahead of time to ensure you will know how to use it in the heat of the moment.
Wear a Life Jacket
First and foremost, put on a life jacket in case you do need to go (or accidentally go) overboard. Life jackets are designed to keep your head above water and in a position that helps you breathe when in the water. Keep in mind that adult-sized life jackets are not suitable for children. A life jacket should fit snugly and won’t allow the child’s chin or ears to slip through.
Locate an Escape Route
If the boat is docked, escape is simple. You can even bypass the life jackets and just get off the boat. In this case, call the firefighters to handle the fire for you; professionals are always a good bet.
If the boat is at sea or in other deep waters when fire breaks out, escape can be more challenging—and, of course, the bigger the boat, the more complex your route can be. Every time you step foot on a large boat, like a ferry or cruiseliner, take note of the emergency plan (which should be posted in a public area of a ferry, as well as posted in your state room on a cruise ship), and pay attention during the “boring” emergency practice drill you’re required to attend on a cruise.
Attempt to Extinguish the Flames
If a fire extinguisher is handy, aim it at the base of the flames and discharge it, using a back and forth sweeping motion. Remember P.A.S.S:
• Pull pin,
• Aim at base of fire
• Squeeze handle
• Sweep side to side
Never use water on an electric, gasoline, grease, or oil fire. Fifty-five percent of boat fires are caused by wiring and appliance malfunctions. Be sure that the fire extinguisher you are using is appropriate for the type of fire you’re facing. If the fire cannot be contained, the boat will be lost.
Watch this video on methods for fighting various boat fires:
Move Away from the Fire
If the fire is uncontainable, move away from it, closing doors and hatches behind you, and move windward if possible. At this point, you’ll need to decide whether to wait for rescue or abandon ship.
Bear in mind that the smoke and chemicals released in the fire can be more dangerous than the fire itself.
Abandon Ship, if Necessary
If possible, enter the life raft directly from the boat; avoid swimming to reach the raft. Bring a radio distress beacon on board the raft along with emergency supplies, such as important medication, water, a Swiss army knife, a whistle, a flashlight and a first-aid kit (many life rafts and escape boats will already be equipped with these supplies; that’s the kind of information you’ll want to know in advance). If you are traveling in foreign waters, bring travel documents as well.
Once on board the raft, get to a safe distance from the burning boat. Try to stay dry and stay warm by huddling with other raft passengers. If there is no supply of drinking water on the raft or escape boat, arrange to collect rainwater and ration it to a maximum of half a quart per person per day.
Preparedness is Key
The more you are prepared for a boat fire when traveling by sea, the more likely you’ll able to handle it calmly, should it happen. More than 400 passengers aboard the car ferry did the right thing in a tough situation and lived to tell about it.