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Accidents and the lessons learned

Three of the world`s biggest tankers blow up within two weeks

On 12th December 1969 the Marpessa, a new giant tanker of over 100,000 gross tons, was off Africa, returning to the Arabian Gulf in the Middle East to pick up her second cargo of crude oil. Suddenly, a massive explosion occurred in one of her centre tanks, killing two of her crew and injuring others. Because of damage to the lines on deck that carried water, it was impossible to put out the fire. Marpessa began to flood, and with her bulkheads giving way under the enormous pressure of water, she sank on 15th December. When two other huge tankers suffered similar explosions in the same area within the next two weeks, Mactra and Kong Haakon VII, it was apparent that this was no coincidence.

All three tankers were cleaning their tanks at the time of the explosions. It was decided that the equipment used to wash the insides of the tanks with water had somehow ignited the dangerous mixture of air and gas left when the crude oil had been pumped out. Perhaps it was just a spark caused by metal grinding on metal, but one theory held that the massive tanks of these vessels could create their own weather conditions. It is possible that the equivalent of a thunderstorm had occurred, with catastrophic results. As a result, tank-cleaning equipment was modified. In addition, an inert gas - carbon dioxide from the ship`s engines, which will not support a fire - is pumped into the hold during tank cleaning.


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