“Miss Mel” goes down in flames

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 17, No. 42            November 1, 2007

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Pictures taken by one of the passengers show a potentially disastrous fire on board. Luckily, none of the passengers and crew on the boat were hurt.

Once on land again, 19 divers posed for the camera, thankful to be safe.

Tourists in Belize who are avid divers or new to the sport, almost always plan on taking a trip to the Blue Hole, Turneffe or Light House Reef. Tour companies across the country carry out these full day excursions to Belize’s great wall dives. However, last Thursday, 19 tourists found themselves in “hot water.”

    Booking their day’s excursion with San Pedro’s Amigos del Mar, the day started out normally. Problems did not commence until after the briefing for the third dive was carried out. Guests onboard stated that everyone heard a strange noise which came from what seemed the engine room. Kathy Mowvley, a passenger, stated that the crew noticed that they had experienced a loss of power in one of the engine rooms of the double-decker boat. “We heard a bang from the engine room, like a fan belt or a piston going through the engine or something. Grey smoke started coming out and then black smoke.”

    Another tourist on the excursion, Pamela Maze, stated that the only sign of anything wrong were minor puffs of smoke. “We didn’t know there was an actual fire until we saw the flames. It was very fast. Basically we were just trying to get as far away from the boat as we could.”

    David Cote stated, “We ended up going to the bow of the boat, because the smoke had filled the cabin, and then we started seeing flames coming out of the side of the boat and so the captain started giving everybody life jackets and everybody started jumping off the boat because the boat was engulfed in flames.”

    In an interview with The San Pedro Sun Mrs. Mowvly’s husband, Steve commented that it was only a matter of seconds before the compartment was completely smoked out. At that point, everyone moved to the stern where they were then instructed to abandon ship. “It was a matter of seconds before the compartment was filled with smoke. We all got out onto the stern, the smoke followed us, as smoke does, so we all went up to the bow where the boat decided to drift around and the smoke filled the bow. No way could the crew fight this fire.”

    Once in the water, guests and the four member crew watched the flames engulf the Miss Mel, eventually sinking it fifteen feet to the bottom of the sea. The stranded people were picked up by a neighboring Aqua Dives boat who took them to shore. Julio Perez from Aqua Dives says that they only did the right thing in rescuing the people, something that they would do for anyone.

    Despite the glowing reviews that other tourists gave Amigos, one of the guests on board, Ross Tullock emailed The San Pedro Sun with concerns about the incident. He listed “a number of the issues with the accident which remain unexplained.” Tulloch questioned: “1) The fire did spread rapidly. However, I was to be the 1st of 19 divers off the back of the boat as we prepared for the final dive. I sat on top of the engine compartment putting on my equipment getting ready to get in the water. I felt the engine noise and saw first hand my dive master open the engine cover within five seconds of the event. He promptly closed the engine cover as there was “some” smoke. At no time did the crew member obtain a fire extinguisher to tackle the smoke. The captain then put both engines in neutral and applied high revs - causing greater oil burn. However, the captain did verify the steering was still working (what part of the captain’s training taught him to check steering works when black smoke is appearing? Why would the captain rev the engine when black smoke is appearing? The captain must have known it was engine or transmission related – why further intensify the situation? 2) Another crew member examined the engine compartment, saw more smoke, however no fire extinguishers were used. I instructed crew to abandon ship however, they said not to and I was told to move to the bow of the boat. All passengers remained on the bow of the boat for a further three minutes, until I saw flames coming up the starboard side of the boat and told people they had to abandon ship. The crew verified my instruction and repeated the order. 3) The life jackets were located on the fly bridge of the boat, not on the level where all passengers were. 4) The crew instructed passengers to move to the rear of the boat down the port side on the outer rail of the boat to collect a scuba tank (as there were no life jackets to hand). You can imagine my shock to see 18 passengers moving to the back of the boat, where the engine is now fully ablaze where the crew is telling passengers to collect a pressurized tank of air and jump. 5) The captain meanwhile started throwing life jackets to me on the bow of the boat and I either passed them to passengers moving down the port outer edge or threw them into the water for passengers to collect. 6) On leaving San Pedro Sunday, I was on the same flight as the owner who was on his way to Florida to meet the boat manufacturer to find out how the hull could have caught fire. According to the owner, there were four separate hull sections. One for the engine, one for the batteries, one for fuel and one for ballast; all are fire resistant to one another, however during the fire, the four sections quickly melted into one.”

    Tullock ended by saying, “It is possible the boat could have been saved had the crew been better trained in dealing with initial signs of engine fire – for they were certainly not focused on passenger safety.” However, the other guests who were onboard the expedition stated, “It was pure confusion, you couldn’t see anything. Kudos to the passengers as well, nobody panicked and got into the water, helped each other and got to the island,” said Steve while Kathy stated that the crew did an excellent job, “They were great.”

    The San Pedro Sun’s attempts to contact owner/manager of Amigos del Mar were declined.

    The 48 foot Miss Mel was valued at $700,000 and was insured to an extent; its engine and equipment were not. A proper investigation, into the cause of the accident, is being carried out by the Belize Port Authority.

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