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Sinking of Indonesian ocean liner puts new focus on ship safety reforms

As at least 13 ships were still beating through a storm-ridden Java Sea Jan. 27 searching for survivors, the still-unfolding story of the sinking of the Indonesian ocean liner Tampomas II began filtering back to shore.

Through the story of what happened a larger number of lives, less dramatically, may be saved.

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Comdr. Hubert T. Blomquist of the US Coast Guard in Washington notes that many of the "pretty good" ship safety standards in the US today were wrought from the aftermath of disasters.

Early speculation has the cause of the sinking as an explosion in the engine room. Witnesses spoke of heavy black smoke coming from the vessel's stern for about 12 hours before the explosion early Jan. 26.

If indeed a fire in the engine room was behind the sinking, there could be similarities to the case of the USS Prinsendam. It was an engine room fire that sank the Dutch ship two months ago in the Gulf of Alaska.

Dutch authorities are in the middle of a secret investigation of the Prinsendam case now.

A major difference between this case and the Tampomas II is that the Prinsendam sank without loss of human life. The reason: The fire was contained, segregated from the rest of the ship, and kept from spreading while it burned for several days.

The usual cause of an engine room fire is the parting of a fuel or lubrication line, according to Commander Blomquist. The fuel or oil that leaks out then catches fire.

What happens next depends on several things. One is the "house cleaning," as Commander Blomquist puts it. How much residue oil is on the floor and machinery parts? More important, is the ship capable of sealing off a burning area with fire-tight bulkheads and reversible ventilation systems.

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On American ships, this is a matter of regulation. Passenger liners are inspected every three months by Coast Guard safety officers.

Many of these regulations demanding fire zones, detection systems, and adequate trained crew, Commander Blomquist says, grew from a disaster.

On its way from Havana to New York in 1934, the bow of the Morro Castle caught fire. The captain headed the ship into the wind and the fire spread throughout the ship. When it beached near Asbury Park, N.J., there were nearly 500 casualties.

The result was a new agency for ship safety, the Bureau of Marine Investigation and Navigation, and a slew of specific regulations.

"To a great extent, that disaster is responsible for many of today's higher standards," says Blomquist.

The sinking of the Titanic, likewise, spawned the International Ice Patrol.

The investigation of the Tampomas II will become public when the Jakarta harbormaster's report reaches the Indonesian shipping court.

"If we can get our hands on the report," Blomquist says, "we're interested." The Prinsendam investigation, too, he hopes will be made public at some point by the Dutch government.

According to information at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, the fire began sometime Sunday.After the explosion, three- quarters of the ship, midship and aft, were aflame. Much of the fire was apparently below decks and not visible to Indonesian Air Force pilots overhead.

The Tamponas II sank at 12:45 p.m. Jan. 27 (12:45 a.m. EST) 650 miles northeast of Jakarta and at least 250 miles from land. Twelve hours later, 515 people had been rescued and over 600 people were still missing. Both passengers and crew are all believed to be Indonesian.

The value of such reports to the US Coast Guard could be either to help evaluate American standards for US ships or to guide inspection pro cedures for foreign ships.

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