A fire scorching a docked ship along downtown San Diego’s waterfront continued to cloud the usually-picturesque area with heavy smoke Saturday, prompting some businesses to close due to the air quality.
The fire sparked at around 9:40 a.m. Friday on the lower deck level of a 120-foot fishing vessel docked at 750 North Harbor Dr. on the San Diego Harbor, about one-third of a mile from Seaport Village, a landmark filled with small shops and eateries.
Quickly, heavy, black smoke filled the waterfront, visible all along the harbor and from some parts of downtown. As the fire intensified, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) officials decided it was too dangerous for firefighters to battle the flames on board and switched to a defensive tactic, spraying the ship from other emergency vessels surrounding it in the water.
Eventually, fire officials decided to let the ship fire burn itself out, keeping a watchful eye on the blaze overnight to make sure mooring lines didn’t ignite. SDFD spokesperson Monica Munoz said the fire appeared to be localized in the bow of the ship.
The fire continued burning into Saturday, with heavy smoke permeating the air. The burning smell along the waterfront was inescapable but, as of 2 p.m., officials had not declared the air quality poor or dangerous.
Still, some surrounding businesses in Seaport Village and at The Headquarters at Seaport shopping complex opted to close due to the ongoing smoke.
Seaport Village posted a message Friday to its Facebook page warning patrons that some stores and restaurants within the center would temporarily close due to the air quality. Patrons were urged to call shops or eateries to confirm if they were open ahead of visiting.
One of the businesses that closed was the Greek Islands Café. The lights were off, the doors were shut, and a sign was placed at the entrance: “Due to the ongoing fire, we were forced to close because of the air quality. We hope to be open tomorrow 10-9pm.”
At The Headquarters at Seaport, a Bollywood dancing event planned for 7 p.m. Friday in the center’s courtyard was canceled Friday night due to the ship fire on the nearby harbor. The Headquarters posted the same notice on social media posted by Seaport Village alerting patrons of possible closures at stores and restaurants due to the smoke stemming from the ship fire.
Chris Weber, Assistant Chief of Emergency Operations with SDFD told NBC 7 on Friday that ship fires are extremely difficult to manage due to a number of factors.
“These ship fires are very dangerous,” Weber told NBC 7. “If you think about it, it’s almost like a high-rise building sitting on its side. We practice and train for it as part of our normal thing but, as you can see, they are difficult. We have to pull lines all the way down to the end of the pier so that they can get into the ship.”
Weber said ladders were placed around the ship so firefighters could get on and off as needed. They also had to set up rescue crews in case a firefighter, outfitted with heavy gear, were to fall into the water.
[G] San Diego Fire-Rescue Crews Battle Ship Fire Near Seaport Village
“[These ships] are a solid steel vessel, so it’s hard to breach doors and get through. And then you’ve got heat that’s being channeled up through very tight ways, so the guys have to fight through all that heat to actually get down and put the fire out,” Weber added.
About 100 emergency personnel handled the response at the ship Friday including SDFD crews, the Harbor Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, and crews from the Coronado, National City, and Chula Vista fire departments.
At around 11:40 a.m. Friday, Harbor Police Department Chief John Bolduc said the agencies made a unified decision to pull firefighters off the ship because it was no longer safe to fight the flames on board. Bolduc said officials hoped the fire would burn itself out within a few dozen hours.
Due to the water being sprayed on the vessel, Bolduc said the ship was beginning to tilt. Adding more water to the ship could cause it to sink, but Bolduc said crews would continue to find ways to cool the blaze from the outside.
Munoz said on Saturday that crews were applying water to the outside of the hull to cool the vessel.
Bolduc said the last time they let a boat burn itself out was about two years ago when a fire tore through a boat on a dry dock. That fire took 51 hours to burn out.
SDFD Chief Brian Fennessy said the fire was located too deep within the ship to safely send firefighters into those decks. He said with the flames, smoke and surrounding steel materials combined, the temperature inside the ship extreme.
The blaze scorched the ship overnight, as firefighters kept a watchful eye. SDFD spokesperson Monica Munoz said crews remained at the scene all night, rotating monitoring duties every three hours and checking mooring lines every hour to make sure they didn't burn. SDFD officials would determine how to staff the fire as it unfolded.
SDFD Deputy Chief Steve Ricci on Saturday said thermal imaging cameras were measuring the fire and yielding scorching temperatures inside the ship – so hot that water applied to the ship was boiling right off.
Munoz said that thermal imaging data indicated temperatures of 300+ degrees inside the vessel.
Ricci said crews had stopped spraying the ship with water because they didn’t want to sink it.
“We don’t want it to turn over because then we’re going to have an environmental problem,” he explained.
Once the ship cools down, crews will access the decks. Ricci said a U.S. Coast Guard safety officer will determine when that time comes. Ricci said the operation will likely last into Sunday, and possibly longer.
The Coast Guard has also contracted an agency, NRC, to help assess the environmental impact of the ship fire. NRC is monitoring the air and if they detect anything outside of normal limits, they will notify officials, Ricci said.
“The best direction for that smoke to go is obviously away from us and away from residential and commercial areas,” the deputy chief added. “We’re going to try different things, like applying a fog screen if we do get smoke in this area. We use a large-diameter hose line that we’ve put in place already, and instead of putting a straight hose stream in the air on that smoke, we’ll use a 60-degree fog to try and divert that smoke away from the shops and the restaurants and things like that.”
A spokesperson with the U.S. Coast Guard said air quality testing, thus far, by NRC has shown quality is still "within parameters."
Ricci said flames were still stemming from the ship's portholes Saturday and spanning the entire length of the ship.
“So there’s still a lot of stuff in there burning,” he said.
Ricci was told the ship is equipped with a 38,000-gallon fuel tank but officials have not determined how much fuel is in that tank or how much of that fuel has burned or is burning.
Any pieces of the burning vessel falling into the water are being bagged and disposed of properly as they fall, he said. NRC officials were out in the water on small boats surrounding the ship, picking up any falling debris and testing the water. As of 4 p.m., there was no oil in the water.
Ricci, a 35-year veteran of the SDFD, said he’s handled smaller boat fires but has never seen anything like this.
“Boat fires, ship fires like this, are one of the most dangerous fires that we’ll ever fight,” he said.
The ship is emblazoned with the name "Norton Sound," and appears to be a fishing vessel. The ship had been docked there for several months. Weber and Munoz said SDFD crews did not find anyone on board during a primary search of the vessel.
On Saturday, Munoz said no one had been able to get on the ship yet -- only crews who conducted that primary search in the early moments of the fire. As Bolduc noted, once the fire burns out, and it is safe to go in, firefighters will access the decks and search again.
Munoz said SDFD had staffed the scene with two engine companies throughout the day but would scale back to one engine company beginning at 8 p.m. That crew will monitor the fire overnight.
Munoz told NBC 7 that the owners of the ship had been notified and were en route to San Diego from Mexico Saturday.
NBC 7 reached out to Norton Sound Enterprises, LLC/E&E Foods, a Seattle-based company that once held minority ownership on the vessel. The director of sales said the ship was sold this past spring to someone in Mexico, though he couldn't confirm the owner's name. The new owner brought the ship to San Diego and docked it at the waterfront.
The cause of the fire is under investigation; no injuries were reported.