Did the Cutty Sark disaster start with a dust fire?
02 October 2008
The fire that badly damaged London's Cutty Sark tourist attraction was probably caused by a vacuum cleaner, accidentally left switched on over a weekend, a Metropolitan Police inquiry has found. At the time of the fire, a renovation team was removing dust from below the decks of the vessel using equipment which was not fit for purpose. It is also thought that the damage could have been minimised had the fire been found earlier by security guards.
Cutty Sark gutted by fire
The fire, which gutted the famous tea clipper in May 2007, was apparently started by the overheating motor of a vacuum cleaner, being used as a dust extractor. Police had checked CCTV coverage taken prior and during the fire but found no evidence of arson.
Work on the vessel required that dust be removed from beneath the deck, where concrete ballast and other debris was being removed. But what persuaded the renovation team to use a vacuum cleaner for this purpose defies belief. The device had been left plugged in over a weekend and there were no sprinklers on the Greenwich dry dock site to extinguish the fire once it had taken hold.
Portable vacuum cleaning equipment is simply not fit for purpose in continuous operation and whether the machine was left running over the weekend accidentally or not, it was bound to overheat especially as it was probably operating in a confined area without ventilation.
Dust in the right concentration is highly likely to burn or explode when supplied with an ignition source or a hot surface. The dusty conditions combined with an ignition source which could have existed on the Cutty Sark that night were just right for a disaster.
To make things worse, the problem was left unnoticed until the fire had taken a strong hold with the resulting £10 million worth of damage.
The vessel was undergoing a £25 million renovation and it was perhaps fortunate that less than 2% of the original fabric of the ship was lost in the fire because its masts, deckhouse, saloon and much of its planking had been removed for the renovation work.
The London Fire Brigade, the Forensic Science Service and Dr. Burgoyne and Partners conducted the investigation, which determined the case of the blaze. The fire started on a lower deck at the back of the ship, where the industrial cleaner was discovered. There was no evidence of arson and the investigation concluded that the fire was an accident.
There is doubt as to whether the fire alarm system was working properly as it had not been tested for some months. A simple fire detection and extinguishing system could have certainly minimised the fire which probably would not have started in the first place had the electrical system at the site had been equipped with suitable protection. And there is also the concern that the suspect equipment was not fit for purpose. Using a vacuum cleaner for continuous dust extraction is not its intended role.
The Health and Safety Executive found that the vacuum cleaner had overheated previously but had been repaired. A £3 thermal cut-out could have prevented the machine from overheating and HSE has now instructed its Italian manufacturer, Soteco, to fit suitable devices to UK models.
The Cutty Sark was among the last of the fast sailing ships that carried tea and spice from China and wool from Australia and is being restored by the Cutty Sark Trust, a charity which aims to reopen the attraction in 2010. The fire has probably added around £10 million to the restoration bill. The Trust is apparently considering suing the contractors for negligence.
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