Iron Chieftain to be Retired - MUA Report

The Iron Chieftain will be retired due to significant damage sustained during a fire. Please read the MUA report here

As a follow up to the report in the June National Office report, I report that at 0300hr on Monday, 18 June 2018 the CSL Iron Chieftain was alongside Berth 113 in Port Kembla Harbour discharging a load of dolomite when the belt drive system caught fire which quickly spread along the system.  The IR on watch immediately raised the alarm and the crew, having been woken by the emergency sirens, followed the onboard firefighting procedures with the CIR and another IR donning the fire suits and valiantly entering the tunnels to do what they could to stem the fire however they were eventually pushed back by the thick smoke and heat.  The response from the fire department was extremely prompt and in short order the fireys boarded and took control of firefighting ordering the immediate evacuation of the vessel, leaving the crew no opportunity to return to their cabins to gather any of their personal belongings with wallets, phones, street clothing all remained onboard. 


The fire had taken hold and from that point on there were 110 firefighters and 5 units daily fighting the blaze from the wharf with 2 Svitzer tugs, whose response time was equal to the emergency services crews, spraying water directly onto the flames initially then maintaining boundary cooling duties on the hull.


Even with the massive volumes of water and foam pouring into and on to the ship by the third day the fire was still burning with an intensity that saw the temperature near the fuel tanks still rising to dangerous levels that had the authorities assessing the possibility of evacuating the area. In all it took 5 days before the fire was brought completely under control. At that stage the emergency response team handed the control of the Iron Chieftain over to the NSW police who restricted any access to the vessel until they had carried out an initial site investigation which took another 3 days before CSL could get anyone onboard. 


The ensuing State regulatory investigation surprisingly falls in the domain of the NSW Coroner although thankfully there were no injuries at all; with the Coroner directing the NSW Police on the interviewing of the crew and on the number of statements they needing to take. The SNSW Branch provided representation for the members throughout this process and the investigation is likely to take some time before findings are handed down. The ATSB has also attended the scene to undertake their own investigation.


Obviously, the fire caused extensive damage on the vessel and CSL engaged the services of Ardent Salvage operators to assess the damage in consultation with AMSA, Lloyds and the Harbour Master. It was a very slow process and frustrating for all involved with the obvious questions being asked but with the Company unable to answer until the assessment had been finalised


After an initial period of chaos, the crew had been set up in hotel accommodation ashore and over the first few days with the help of the Branch the members had to source sufficient clothing, toiletries, mobile phones etc to hold them over.  After the first couple of days with very little contact from the company CSL finally held a meeting with the members and provided some vouchers to assist with purchases and to provide what scant information they could. At this time the company advised the TIRs that had been onboard that they would be returned to METL and would be going home.  CSL brought in Hunterlink to provide counselling to the crew with Hunterlink providing their usual exemplary service and the ability to talk to them was much appreciated by some of the crew.


Although access to the vessel was limited the members attended the wharf daily, working in with the Captain and carrying out whatever tasks were available whenever the opportunity to get onboard arose with two IRs filling the back shifts, 4 to midnight and midnight to 8 as a basic watch.

The full crew complement was maintained in the port until Friday 6th July when CSL notified the Branch that they were cutting back the number of crew on site and that two IRs an engineer and a mate had been advised they were being sent home. Agreement was reached that both these members would be paid as if on board for the remainder of their swing duration. The remainder of the crew were maintained in the port unless they wished to go in which case they would be paid the same. To their credit the rest of the members stayed to maintain their positions doing whatever tasks arose and identifying other work to be done.



This situation stayed like this until 0730 today, 10th July when CSL rang to advise that they had been notified the previous night that because of the significant damage caused by the fire the CSL Group had made a decision to “retire” the Iron Chieftain. The vessel was to be handed over to the underwriters who would maintain the salvage crew to oversee the offloading of the fuel and sludge and to prepare the vessel for towing from the port and that they would be dropping back to maintaining a skeleton crew on the wharf with two positions for a CIR and IR to be part of that compliment. The remaining members would be flying home on Friday 13th July and would be paid as if onboard for the remainder of their swing duration.


Emptying the vessel of fuel oil and transferring the toxic sludge that is sitting in the tunnels and bilges to trucks is expected to take up to 6 weeks after which the vessel will be towed out of the harbour. CSL advise they are not sure at this time where it will be towed to.


CSL have advised that as a consequence of the retirement of the vessel all CSL Australia positions on the Iron Chieftain will be redundant and they have since issued Expressions of Interest for voluntary redundancies to their employees as a first step. The union are to meet with CSL prior to any compulsory redundancies being declared.


National Assistant Secretary Warren Smith has written to CSL advising that the Union will be seeking meetings with the company, which will include CSL Canada, with a view to replacing the Iron Chieftain with another Australian crewed vessel to cover the trade the Iron Chieftain was to carry. It will be part of those discussions that any replacement vessel would be manned by the same crew that manned the Iron Chieftain. The dates for these meetings will be advised through National Office reports.


Comrades it is a terrible situation for any vessel but particularly an Australian manned vessel to suffer such a fire and be declared a “dead ship” but if there is any saving grace from this it is that the fire happened where it did. The Port Kembla Port Authority had held a major fire drill around a scenario of a vessel on fire at berth involving all emergency services and Svitzer tugs only 3 weeks earlier which undoubtedly contributed to the very professional response time in the early hours of that Monday morning. Had this fire occurred at either of the Chieftain’s other regular discharge sites; at the FOTB in the Spencer Gulf or at berth in Whyalla where there is no ability for emergency response units to access the berth, there is little doubt the vessel would have burnt to the waterline with the related potential for serious injuries or worse a real possibility.


As it is the members who manned the Iron Chieftain are now unsure of what their future holds.

They can be proud of the professionalism they displayed in the initial stages of the fire which has been acknowledged by both CSL and the first response firefighters. They give the proof to our claim of Australian seafarers setting the highest standards in the industry.


Garry Keane

Southern NSW Branch Secretary

MUA Vice President