Spirit of Norfolk ship fire hearings to begin as Coast Guard searches for answers

(Tribune News Service) — The Coast Guard will hear public testimony beginning this week as part of its investigation of the fire that decimated the cruise ship Spirit of Norfolk at Naval Station Norfolk last summer.

The series of hearings, which begin Thursday, will examine “all aspects of the fire and subsequent total constructive loss” and will include testimony from Spirit of Norfolk staff and passengers, industry experts, marine mechanics, and leaders in the Coast Guard, according to a statement from the Coast Guard. That will include a review of pre-accident events, regulatory compliance, crewmember duties and qualifications, mechanical systems, emergency response and Coast Guard oversight of the vessel.

More than 100 people were aboard the passenger vessel for a two-hour lunch cruise on the Elizabeth River June 7 when a fire started in the engine room. The 106 passengers, including 89 schoolchildren, were evacuated. No one was injured but the boat burned for nearly five days before the fire could be fully extinguished.

Rear Adm. Shannon Gilreath, commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District, ordered a formal investigation to determine causing factors of the fire, examine the response and identify any other information that can improve maritime safety. At this time, there is no known cause of the fire.

The hearings will be held at the Virginia Beach City Council chambers in Virginia Beach. Meetings will start at 8 am each day, and they will be livestreamed at https://livestream.com/uscginvestigations/spiritofnorfolk. The hearings are scheduled Thursday, Friday, Saturday and will continue next week on Jan. 30, 31 and Feb. 2.

According to a tentative schedule on the hearings, Thursday’s will feature testimony from Coast Guard training and inspections officials and marine mechanics from the Bay Diesel company.

The Spirit of Norfolk underwent a safety inspection four weeks before it went up in flames and no deficiencies were found. The inspection included an evaluation of the fire pump on board and a fire drill, review of the crew’s certificates and the keeping of logs, navigation systems, the anchor system, structural integrity and lifesaving procedures.

The 187-foot ship, built in 1992, was woven into the fabric of the Norfolk community—playing host to all manner of events from weddings to graduation parties to school field trips.

The public can submit questions and comments related to the ongoing investigation and hearing via email at [email protected] This email will be checked regularly, according to the Coast Guard, and all correspondence will be acknowledged during the hearing and throughout the investigation.

[email protected]

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An aerial view of Naval Station Norfolk. (Christopher Stoltz/US Navy)

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