30 years ago

A look back at the news in June 1981

By June 1981, 18 months after HCB first appeared, the magazine was beginning to settle down into a structure that current readers might recognise. For instance, that issue included reports on the discussions that had recently taken place at the UN Committee of Experts’ 11th session, the implications of changes made by the RID/ADR experts to the packaging provisions, further packaging changes resulting from amendments to the IMDG Code (courtesy of Desmond Waight), and the impact of the new (as of March 1980) Baltic MOU.

Many of those issues are still ‘live’ some 30 years later, although at least the regulators in 1981 did not have to bother themselves with the technical problems associated with lithium batteries.

Elsewhere, the June 1981 issue covered a lot of maritime ground – not surprising, as the magazine’s founding editor, Mike Corkhill, was trained as a naval architect. For instance, the issue looked at eight representative oil tankers delivered into the fleet during 1980, most (if not all) of which have likely been scrapped by now. An important element in the sector at the time was the new requirements for inert gas systems aboard tankers. HCB had already developed a particular speciality in reviewing incidents and the safety lessons that can be drawn from them. The June 1981 issue looked again at the April 1980 rail crash in Somerville, Massachusetts, when a tank car with 13,000 gallons (49,200 litres) of phosphorus tetrachloride ruptured, creating a vapour cloud that forced the evacuation of 23,000 people and sent more than 400 to hospital. In its investigation into the incident, NTSB noted that response advice was contradictory and that the fire services’ practice of using water hoses to keep flammable liquids spills out of sewers (!) was counter-productive when the product concerned reacts with water.

The issue also looked at the ongoing investigation into the loss of the OBO Derbyshire in the Pacific Ocean. It is certainly the case that in those days catastrophic vessel losses were a lot more common than they are today, and the forensic skills of modern marine investigators are far ahead of the position just a generation ago.

Another regular feature was the ‘Echoes’ column, which looked back even further to historic accidents. In the June 1981 issue, Paddy Watson recalled what was supposed to be the first ever tanker explosion. The iron steamship Petriana was built as a general cargo ship by Hawthorn Leslie on the Tyne in 1879, and converted in 1886 to carry oil, with six cargo tanks and double bottom tanks for ballast, giving a deadweight of about 2,100 tonnes. In December 1886 Petriana had arrived in Liverpool from Batumi with a cargo of Russian kerosene; after discharge the tanker entered a repair dock in Birkenhead where, during water testing, there was an explosion in the foremost cargo tank. Ten men were working in the tank at the time; four died instantly and the other six died later of their injuries.

The men were working by naked light and investigators surmised that these had ignited vapours coming up from the ballast tanks, probably as a result of leaks from the cargo tank. Fortunately we no longer work by candlelight, but nevertheless deaths and injuries still occur on a regular basis as a result of hot work on tanks that have not been inerted. The old ship carried on for a few more years; in February 1900 she was listed as quarantined for 15 days in Borneo with an outbreak of smallpox on board. That, at least, is one hazard we no longer have to worry about.

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