Safety queries stalk Mombasa Port after blast

MT East Wind II, the oil ship in which the blast occurred. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

The explosion and flames from an oil tanker at the port of Mombasa on Boxing Day has sent a wave of panic in the maritime industry in the country.

While investigators have delved into the matter, industry players are not at ease since the real cause of the blast is yet to be established.

Players in the industry have now demanded full investigations and a report on what caused the explosion on MT East Wind II vessel which had been anchored at a Mombasa shipyard after delivering fuel in Tanzania.

So loud was the explosion that it was heard nearly a kilometre away. Shipping experts are now greatly concerned with the safety of the port.

Passengers on the nearby Likoni ferry crossing channel screamed as they saw flames from the oil tanker docked at the African Marine and General Engineering Company (AMGECO) shipyard.

Many thought it was a terrorist attack. Residents particularly from the Likoni suburb called for an inquiry.

Many of the ferry passengers were enjoying their quiet holidays when they were sent into a panic mode following the blast.

‘’We at first thought that a bomb had exploded since the impact was huge. We could see the ground shaking,’’ said a Likoni resident.

He said the loud bang sent people scampering for safety and disrupted businesses.

The oil tanker, owned by a local shipping company, had just returned from delivering oil in Tanga Port, Tanzania.

By the time things settled down, one crew member, who was on the deck, was reported to have sustained head injuries and rushed to hospital. His condition is stable.

Although the shipmaster reported that the cause was an electric fault, independent reports indicate that the tanker could have caught fire because there was too much vapour from the oil chamber.

A shipping expert, Andrew Mwangura, said that the oil chambers should be opened for at least 48 hours before any repairs start onboard an oil tanker to avoid fires.

Mr Mwangura called for thorough investigations to avoid future fires at Mombasa Port. He said the marine investigation should be carried out in accordance with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) code 84920 to ensure the port remains safe from such incidents. This is the third recorded ship fire to occur in Mombasa.

In December 2006, Mv Basra caught fire at the Mombasa Old Port while loading cargo destined for Kismayo in Somalia.

On November 19 1981, Mv Rafael caught fire while discharging cargo at berth number 4 of Mombasa Port.

Mombasa Central Police boss Maxwell Agoro said no major injuries were immediately reported in the explosion.

He said police had launched an independent investigation. Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and Mombasa County Emergency Services responded swiftly to the mid-day explosion that caused extensive damage to the vessel’s upper deck and nearby buildings.

‘’There was a loud bang, which ignited a fire that destroyed sections of the vessel. There were no casualties. We have launched investigations together with marine agencies to find out what went wrong,’’ said Agoro.

A source said metal objects flew in all directions following the impact of the blast. Another source said some glass walls in buildings located about a kilometre away from the scene of the accident were shattered.

The majority of the crew who work onboard the vessel are Kenyans.

In a statement, KPA said it promptly responded to an explosion incident onboard MT Eastwind II that caused fire.

KPA Harbour tug Simba III that is equipped with firefighting equipment contained the fire nearly an hour after the incident was reported by the master of the ship to the KPA control tower.

“The instant response by the tugboat and fire brigade on the shore side ensured normalcy. The cause of the fire according to the Master was an electric fault, “said KPA management in the statement.

MT East Wind II operates between Mombasa, Zanzibar and Tanga. Her last voyage was from Tanga where she had offloaded Premium Motor Spirits (PMS). KPA said the vessel was in ballast condition.

KPA managing director William Ruto commended the crew of tug simba III for successfully containing the fire.

“The fire brigade continued to monitor the situation where they left at around 1450hrs after confirming the situation was normalized and safe,” he added.

The incident shook the entire port community since the facility usually handles several thousands of tonnes of inflammable fuels throughout the year.

Mwangura said there was need to unravel the cause of the latest fire and make the report public because port safety must be always assured.