A massive fire in the Port of Tacoma late Wednesday took more than 12 hours to contain. No injuries were reported, but Trident Seafoods declared the total loss of its 230-foot processing vessel, the Aleutian Falcon.
Marine traffic was held up for hours, and people living nearby were told to shelter in place as flames and smoke persisted from Pier 12, where Trident had docked the ship for maintenance between the Hylebos and Blair waterways.
Initial reports of smoke and flames came from passersby who called Tacoma Fire around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, said Tacoma Fire spokesman Joe Meinecke. He said this incident was far from routine.
“First of all, it's not a common thing. Even though we're a large port, that doesn't happen very often,” he said.
And even though they train for it, in real life, the challenges loom large. Burning vessels have to be extinguished without sinking them.
Soon after several firefighters boarded the ship, they realized the blaze was coming from deep inside the hull – with danger of collapse. They also knew, because of swift reporting from Trident, that this vessel had nearly 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board as well tens of thousands of pounds of potentially toxic chlorine and ammonia that are used as refrigerants after the seafood is processed at sea.
Meinecke says the firefighters had to keep all of this afloat.
“Once it sinks, then you end up with a much larger environmental disaster, really,” he said. “And so, even though there was definitely air pollution associated with this incident, it was probably the lesser of the two problems in this case.”
All three of Tacoma’s fireboats were used to spray the vessel from the sides, applying just enough water to keep those chemicals cool and contain the blaze without causing the ship to submerge.
Fortunately, Trident had placed a protective boom around the vessel before mooring it for maintenance, so oil and other contaminants running off the vessel were largely contained along with the flames.
The Port of Tacoma was able to reopen the adjacent waterways Thursday afternoon, even as the fire continued to smolder.
The cause of the incident is under investigation.