Heads were turned away, solutions were blocked … then it was too late  CID questioning reveals story of a reluctance to act    Both the X-Press Pearl’s chief engineer and second engineer have told the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) they were not informed about an acid leak in one of the containers on the vessel responsible for one [...]


How the X-Press Pearl sailed into catastrophe


  • Heads were turned away, solutions were blocked … then it was too late 
  • CID questioning reveals story of a reluctance to act  

 Both the X-Press Pearl’s chief engineer and second engineer have told the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) they were not informed about an acid leak in one of the containers on the vessel responsible for one of Sri Lanka’s worst maritime disasters.

According to the CID, Chief Engineer Oleg Sadilenko told investigators he first became aware of a problem in the cargo after seeing email exchanges to and from the vessel while it was en route to Port Hamad in Qatar (the ship started from Malaysia on April 29, docked in Jebel Ali, UAE on May 9 and arrived in Qatar on May 11).

Since he had not been officially informed of the problem, however, the chief engineer had opted not to pursue the matter. He told the CID that while he had been aware that the vessel was transporting dangerous goods, the responsibility for their handling was that of the deck officer, among whose duties it is to ensure the safe handling and delivery of cargo.

The dangerous situation onboard remained the same when the X-Press Pearl docked at Port Hazira in India on May 15, the chief engineer has further said. Nevertheless, no solution was found at that port either. Chief Engineer Sadilenko claims he did not look into precisely what was amiss since he had no expertise in handling dangerous cargo or resolving such problems.

Hundreds of litres of toxic chemicals and billions of plastic pellets have polluted Sri Lankan seas following the accidents on the X-Press Pearl.

The vessel laid anchor in the outer harbour of the Colombo Port on May 19. At 2am on May 20, the CID was told, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emission sensor on board sounded an alarm from Cargo Hold No. 2. An inspection conducted over 10 minutes had found nothing unusual. A further 40 minutes later, the fire alarm had gone off. The chief engineer had gone to the location again with the second engineer, where they had observed and smelled smoke that seemed to be from a chemical substance from Hold No. 2. There had been no fire. The captain had been notified.

At 10.30am, after smelling burning rubber, the chief engineer and second engineer had again inspected Hold No. 2, whereupon they had seen that the rubber seals on the door in the hold was on fire. They had managed to douse the burning rubber with fire extinguishers. Since the location was too hot for closer inspection the crew had closed the doors to the hold and activated the CO2 flooding system to extinguish the fire. They had also pumped seawater to the location in a bid to cool the deck down. At 2.30pm, orange smoke and a strong smell of chemicals began emanating from the hold.

A group of Sri Lanka navy personnel came aboard at about 4.30pm to look into the report of chemical smoke from the vessel but were unable to do anything to remedy the situation and left after about two hours.

The ship’s general alarm sounded at 11pm. An inspection this time revealed that a large fire had started on deck. Seawater was pumped on deck to prevent containers that did not contain dangerous goods from catching fire but CO2 firefighting equipment was now useless as the fire had become too large, making it difficult to get near its source. Strong winds at the time worsened the situation, allowing the fire to spread rapidly through the ship. Tugs arrived to attempt to douse the fire but failed.

Twelve sailors were taken off the vessel on May 23 to make way for a 12-member team of firefighting experts from the Netherlands-based salvage company, SMIT Salvage, and the rest of the crew helped them. At about 3am on May 25, a large explosion occurred near the engine room, scattering debris all over the ship and destroying the vessel’s air compressor. The captain ordered the ship’s engines to be shut down.

A second explosion from near the engine room forced the remaining crew to abandon ship on the advice of the expert team, the CID was told.

Second Engineer Samar Balraj Singh had only boarded the X-Press Pearl at Port Hazira on May 15, taking over duties from the previous second engineer on May 19. He had told investigators that he was informed on May 20 by the chief engineer that there was a fire on a container in Cargo Hold No. 2.

Second Engineer Singh has stated that no-one on board had informed him that there was a leak of dangerous chemicals from the container at the time he boarded the vessel. While he had been among the crew members who tried to assist the firefighting team to douse the fire, he and his fellow crew members had to abandon ship and were evacuated by rescue teams to Colombo Port on May 25.

It has already been revealed that the vessel’s skipper, Captain Tyutkalo Vitaly, had been aware of the acid leak from a container while the ship was docked at both Port Hamad and Port Hazira. The ship had made requests to offload the container at both ports but the requests had been turned down by authorities at those ports.

Officials from the Merchant Shipping Secretariat who were interviewed by the CID had noted that the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), of which Sri Lanka is a signatory, has laid out clear criteria to be followed when transporting dangerous goods, while the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code), notes that special security arrangements must be made when transporting such dangerous goods in containers. Chapter VII of SOLAS (Carriage of Dangerous Goods), requires that a ship’s captain inform the nearest country immediately and in detail if there is a risk of dangerous goods falling or leaking into the sea or if such a mishap has already taken place, the officials pointed out.

The X-Press Pearl’s captain, chief engineer and second engineer are already listed as suspects in the case. The Attorney-General’s Department has informed the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court that investigations show the ship’s local agent, Sea Consortium Lanka (Pvt) Ltd, had deleted some emails between the firm and the fire-stricken vessel. The court has ordered the local agent to provide data and logs of the original emails.

When the case was taken up again at the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court this week, the CID, acting on the Attorney-General’s instructions, requested the court to list a further seven suspects in the case: these are Sea Consortium Lanka, four of the company’s officials, and two more officers aboard the X-Press Pearl.

Additional Magistrate Shalani Perera, however, rejected the CID’s request. The magistrate is not bound to give reasons for the decision. Sarath Jayamanne PC, who appeared for Sea Consortium Lanka, argued that the Magistrate’s Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. He said a case against the suspects could only be filed under the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Act and pointed out that this must be done in the High Court. Mr Jayamanne charged that the CID had laid charges against the suspects under the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance solely with the aim of keeping the case in the Magistrate’s Court.

Attorney-at-Law Nipuna Wijesekara, who appeared for the ship’s captain, chief engineer and second engineer, told the court his clients were sorry for what had occurred and would like to apologise, although they emphasised the catastrophe had been due to an accident. The attorney said his clients could not appear in court as they were still in quarantine but would make an appearance at the next court date. Deputy Solicitor-General Madhawa Tennakoon, along with Senior State Counsel Fazly Razeek and State Counsel Lahiru Jayamanne, appeared for the Attorney-General.

Distressed ship’s agent says no emails were deleted“The fire started after the ship was in achorage for 23 hours”X -PRESS FEEDERS are among the world’s largest feeder operators handling more than 600,000 containers per year through the Port of Colombo. Its local agent, Sea Consortium Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd., has been in the business for the past 30 years and is itself now in the eye of a storm following last fortnight’s fire and capsizing of one of its vessels X-Press Pearl off the Colombo Harbour. The following is a Question and Answer interview the Company spokesman had with the Sunday Times this week. ST: Why are the emails between the ship, yourselves and the Harbour Master supposedly erased from your computers.

SCL: At the very outset, we can categorically assure you that there has been no “erasure” of any e-mails by our company. This allegation has been made by various parties purely to insinuate that the company has deleted e-mails to destroy evidence of the chain of events prior to the arrival of the vessel X-Press Pearl into our waters. This is absolutely false and can be established by the computer records that have been handed over to the CID. I can therefore categorically assure you that all of the relevant emails are available.

ST: What do you mean by relevant emails?

SCL: We handle more than 30 vessels a month. Different staff members are given different vessels to handle. Every staffer gets a copy of all  operational mails through a common domain address directly to their individual email address even though they do not handle that particular vessel. They are also copied to the Group id ops@x-pressfeeders.com.lk. Staffers who do not handle the vessel routinely delete the emails that are not applicable to their vessels to save capacity and for house-keeping management on their laptops.  The Operations staffer handling X-Press Pearl has handed over the relevant emails to the CID. Nothing has been deleted from his, or the Group email id. All correspondence is therefore available completely intact. So, the allegations that have been made of deletions are based on the superficial examination that had been initially conducted by the authorities.

ST: When did the crew of the X-Press Pearl inform SCL regarding the nitric acid leak in one of the containers? Was it before or after the ship entered Sri Lankan waters?

SCL: The ship captain’s email to the agent was on the 19th May at 18.42 hours saying, “Smoke in container – no risk of fire”. The vessel was then in international waters.

ST: And what action did you, the agent take once informed – and when was that?

 SCL: We informed the Port Authority’s Harbour Master by email the next day (20 May) at 10.19 hours. Our email read “Leaking of a container and smoke as well as requesting permission to discharge the container and rehandle this unit”.

ST: But the vessel entered Sri Lankan waters in the early hours of 20 May — before your email about the smoke. Who then asked for permission to enter Sri Lankan waters and who allowed the vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters?

SCL: First and foremost, there was no need for any special permission for the vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters since it was  a regular caller to Port of Colombo. It was to be berthed at the CICT terminal as per berthing plan. It was in anchorage till it got a berth. In any event, even when the Port Authorities boarded the vessel after midday on the 20th after the receipt of our email and remained on the vessel for their inspection till around 18.00 on that day there was no fire on board. The fire occurred only at 11.10 pm.

ST: Did you and/or the vessel’s Captain alert the Harbour Master to the presence of easily inflammable Dangerous Cargo on board the vessel?

SCL:    We did inform the authorities in Colombo that there was such cargo on board the vessel. This was at 16.45 on the 19th. The SLPA acknowledged receipt of this at 20.08 also before the vessel entered our waters.

ST: So, could they have discharged the leaking container between midday on the 20th and before it caught fire later that night? Wouldn’t that have avoided a fire breaking out on the ship?

SCL: Unfortunately, there was no alongside berth available at the time the vessel caught fire. The vessel had to wait until a CICT berth was free to berth and discharge cargo. Had a berth on arrival been available this could have been averted.

ST:Don’t vessels like this carrying consignments of Dangerous Cargo have sufficient firefighting equipment to douse a fire in mid-sea?

SCL: Yes, they do. However, this fire started while at Colombo anchorage after sitting there for almost 23 hours.

ST: Have you as a frontline shipper and/or the Shippers Association raised concerns over the inadequacy of firefighting equipment at the Colombo Port If so, from about when have these concerns been raised?

SCL: The Association of Ceylon Steamer Agents (CASA) which represents all agents of general cargo vessels, car carriers, tankers, bulk carriers, containers etc., has discussed these concerns. It would seem that in this instance, the Port Authority genuinely felt they could handle the fire.  In fact, there have been much larger fires that have been very successfully dealt with in the past. However, in fairness to them this was an exceptional situation because there was extreme bad weather for four continuous days with high swell of the sea and gusty winds blowing at over 80 kmph. All these combined increased the fire to uncontrollable levels.

ST:Is your parent company willing to engage in providing compensation to the damage to the environment and livelihoods of the fishermen or do you feel it is the responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka to sort out these issues?

SCL:    We have linked the Sri Lankan State agencies here like MEPA, NARA, SLPA, Merchant Shipping and the Navy with the International Tanker Operators Federation which has worked in major disasters in New Zealand, Australia, North Sea, Baltics, Venezuela etc., to help in the process of assessing and quantifying the damage.  There are established procedures to deal with such situations.

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