Watertight door crushes engineer

Lookout! Issue 24, March 2012

The watertight door of a 63 metre passenger ship closed with 1,650kg of force onto the body of the ship’s chief engineer.

The chief engineer was killed when he was so badly crushed that he could not breathe, and fell unconscious. He never recovered.

The vessel had been berthed with 27 crew and 46 passengers on board. During the morning, the master announced the crew would be carrying out a fire and emergency drill, which included testing the hydraulically controlled watertight doors.

Early into the drill, the crew noticed that a fire hose connected to a hydrant in the garbage room was hammering. The chief engineer and two crew headed below to the garbage room and began discussing the matter. Meanwhile, the master announced from the bridge that he was about to set the watertight doors that lead to the garbage room to remote-close mode.

The chief engineer continued working on the water hammer problem, and sent one of the crew to check a pump in the engine room. The second crew member then went to radio the master that the fire segment of the drill had been completed.

After he had checked the pump in the engine room, the first crew member turned around and saw that the chief engineer had become trapped in the watertight door. The door had closed onto his back as he had moved sideways through the door.

The first crew member tried to open the door by operating the handle, but the lever was jamming on the chief engineer’s shoulder. He then grabbed a spanner and started trying to unscrew the door handle from its shaft. Although it loosened a little, it was not enough to allow him to open the door.

By now, other crew had arrived, and they managed to release the lower hydraulic ram on the door and push it open to release the engineer.

It is thought that the chief engineer was wedged by the door for about a minute before he was discovered, and that it took a further seven minutes to free him. He was unconscious when the crew brought him up on deck. Although resuscitation efforts by ship paramedics and ambulance staff were successful, he never regained consciousness, and died in hospital after several days on a ventilator.


  • Internationally there have been at least 13 recorded deaths in the past 21 years attributed to watertight doors. Although mariners pass through the doors thousands of times each year, these accidents serve as a keen reminder of the danger.
  • The watertight doors on the vessel could be operated either locally, or by remote control from the bridge. Crew were most used to the doors being operated locally. The technique was to open the door enough to reach an arm around and hold the lever on the opposite side of the door in the open position as the person passed through. The crew routinely did not open the door fully before starting to pass through.
    • When watertight doors are in remote-close mode, it is vital that they are always opened fully before any attempt to pass through. In a properly operating watertight door, an alarm will sound when a door is closing in remote-close mode. The combination of a fully opened door and an alarm gives an acceptable safety margin to anyone passing through the door. Note: In this accident, it is not known whether the door-closing alarm sounded.
  • The watertight doors had been set to close in half the allowable time. The doors took just 9.3 seconds to close from fully open. The faster these doors are set to close, the greater the risk. Under no circumstances should watertight doors be set to close faster than the maximum allowable speed.
  • There were concerns about the maintenance of the doors. Although it is not known whether this contributed to the accident, watertight doors must be maintained in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions.

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