Mr. Tom Gorgol and Mr. Joel Morgado of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) talk about the co-ordinated multi-agency Mass Rescue response to the M/V Caribbean Fantasy.
The Caribbean Fantasy's engine room caught fire, spreading to other compartments, forcing passengers and crew to abandon the vessel. 511 people and 5 pets were saved that day with minimal injuries and impact to the environment.
It was nearly 7:15 am, on August 17, 2016, when the Puerto Rico 9-1-1 Emergency Dispatch Call Center received a call from a member of the public saying that there was a vessel outside of the San Juan basin entrance:
"There is a ship in the basin smoking badly and seems to be on fire”.
The Call Center immediately contacted the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Sub-Center (RSC) San Juan, notifying them of the situation. At the same time, RSC San Juan Watchstanders were receiving VHF communications from the vessel:
“SECURITE, SECURITE, SECURITE, THIS IS THE MOTOR VESSEL CARIBBEAN FANTASY NOTIFYING ALL VESSELS, THIS VESSEL IS NOT UNDER COMMAND.”
After establishing radio communications with RSC San Juan the Caribbean Fantasy, a 614-foot passenger and cargo ferry inbound from the Dominican Republic, stated they had a main engine room fire which was now out of control. There were 511 passengers and crew on board the stricken ship and they were preparing to abandon ship.
RSC San Juan immediately began dispatching SAR units and the USCG Cutter Joseph Tezanos, a 154-foot Fast Response Cutter, assumed the duties of On-Scene- Coordinator (OSC). As OSC, the Joseph Tezanos began directing and coordinating the numerous assets that arrived to assist in the safe evacuation of the passengers and crew. With over 30 vessels involved in the incident this was a daunting task! There were over 15 local vessels offering assistance as well as:
|•||Two 33-foot Coast Guard boats,|
|•||A 55-foot Aids to Navigation Boat (ANB),|
|•||U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection vessel,|
|•||Three local ferries.|
Of particular note was the effort by the Coast Guard crew from the ANB who skilfully manoeuvred their vessel to recover passengers from a lifeboat whose davit had malfunctioned leaving the lifeboat hanging 10 feet from the waterline. As the ANB was disembarking the passengers from the lifeboat, one of the passengers went into cardiac arrest and a crew member quickly performed CPR and resuscitated the passenger.4
Meanwhile, the majority of the passengers were abandoning to the liferafts by making the descent down the vessel’s steep Marine Evacuation Slide system. This involved going past the hull of the ship which was so hot from the uncontrollable engine fire that the paint was blistering! At the same time, Coast Guard helicopters coordinated an orderly evacuation by air, hoisting numerous individuals off of the burning vessel.
While the rescue of the survivors was taking place, members from U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan and Station San Juan rapidly deployed to the pre-designated landing site, which was adjacent to the cruise ship piers in downtown San Juan. Of particular note was the determination of the landing site to be used: Since the survivors would be coming ashore via liferafts and vessels the preferred landing needed to be a lower pier structure with adequate access to emergency care personnel. Once the survivors started arriving at the landing site, the Coast Guard, alongside federal, state, and local agencies (26 in total), immediately began working as a cohesive group to determine medical needs, as well as to ensure accurate passenger accountability, and to reunite family members.
The success of this inter-agency coordination is largely due to the Coast Guard’s tireless effort in conducting stakeholder outreach, Mass Rescue Operation (MRO) plan development, and ensuring the Puerto Rico emergency response system and local maritime industry network were fully engaged in exercises to help them understand the challenges associated in responding to a maritime MRO.
On this day in August, these efforts paid off and more importantly they enhanced working relationships across several agencies and organisations who have varying degrees of jurisdiction and responsibilities.
Multiple agencies and organisations worked together to save lives and this unity of effort resulted in the safe evacuation of all 511 persons on board (and five pets).
This MRO possessed many of the key elements associated with other MRO events:
|•||Rescue coordination and response by multiple organizations, agencies and resources;|
|•||Immigration and customs;|
|•||Proper landing site designation;|
|•||Passenger and crew accountability;|
|•||Activation of a family reception center;|
The critical lesson learned from this MRO response is preparedness. All 26 agencies, that participated in the response followed the comprehensive Puerto Rico Mass Rescue Plan thus ensuring that everyone understood their roles and responsibilities. The success of the response of the Caribbean Fantasy MRO would not have been possible without the local emergency management and response community working together, relying on their training, and following the local MRO plan.
The lessons learned in the Caribbean Fantasy incident will be considered in depth at the IMRF's mass rescue conference in Sweden in June.
Video footage can be found at https://youtu.be/1l7NCSQSjQU This is provided by the Coast Guard Foundation.