The New Clarissa struck ground off the shoreline of Oregon. - Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

The New Clarissa struck ground off the shoreline of Oregon.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

After action reviews have long been used by the fire service as a form of training to analyze and learn from past actions or inaction during emergency operations.

Industrial Fire World is launching a series of articles where we will present historical incidents from around the world and highlight what has been shared to better prepare those who might face a comparable event in the future.

Readers are encouraged to review these events with the benefit of hindsight and evaluate how a similar event would be handled today given the training and resources they have available.

Ask Yourself the Following:

  1. Do you have the training and resources to handle this type of event?
  2. Given the lessons learned, what would you do differently if you were assigned as the incident commander?
  3. What special resources or equipment would you request?
  4. Do you have formal agreements in place to hire or request equipment or contractors to mitigate the incident?
  5. Were the risks taken to bring this incident to a successful conclusion appropriate for the reward?

With this initial article, we'll take a closer look at the Feb. 4, 1999 grounding of the New Carissa fuel freighter off Coos Bay, which unleashed one of the worst environmental disasters Oregon has seen before or since.

Recap of the Incident

Nothing made bigger news nationally at the time than the grounding of the New Carissa. As the rough surf slowly tore the ship apart, authorities struggled to avoid another Valdez-caliber disaster.

Only one option remained. The Coast Guard decided to set fire to the freighter's cargo.

"Every gallon of oil burning is one less gallon on Oregon's shoreline," Coast Guard Capt. Mike Hall told reporters.

Enter Jerry Craft. Former refinery fire chief and lead firefighter with Williams Fire & Hazard Control, Craft served as a consultant when the No. 6 fuel oil failed to yield to the Coast Guard's gentle persuasion using standard flares.

"No. 6 fuel oil is very heavy oil with a high ignition temperature," Craft said. "It's got a flash temperature of about 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The flash and ignition point of this material is very high."

A special preparation known as "homemade napalm" added a surface accelerant to the stubborn fuel, warming it enough to begin emitting flammable vapors. Carefully placed explosives dumped the fuel from four different storage tanks into several open cargo holds prior to ignition.

Limited access further complicated the situation. A Navy Explosive Ordinance Division team deposited on the freighter by helicopter were the only personnel allowed aboard to set the charges. Once removed, the team fired the explosives by remote control.

Even before the fire could finish its work, the weakened freighter cracked open its flooded stern cargo holds. However, the burning fuel remained confined to the ship without entering the sea.

With only 100,000 gallons of waxy residual left aboard after the fire, the next step called for towing the freighter about 250 miles out to sea and scuttle her in deep water. The New Carissa did not go peacefully. The bow section broke free and drifted back to the Oregon coastline. Eventually, with the help of a Navy destroyer, the bow joined the stern in a watery grave 10,000 feet deep.

Had Jerry ever written his memoirs the title could have been "I Was an Arsonist for the U.S. Coast Guard."

"I had to turn my hat around and think about 'What do we do to light one off and keep it burning?"

Editor's note: Read our initial after action reveiw of the incident here and the Coast Guard's after action report here.