Days after a fire consumed one of the lake freighters most well-known to the Twin Ports, it’s still too soon to know what its prognosis is.
The Roger Blough burned for several hours early Monday, requiring a massive suppression effort at the Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, shipyard where it had been wintering.
“We were very fortunate,” Sturgeon Bay Fire Chief Tim Dietman told the News Tribune on Friday. “The boat is saved; it’s floating, it’s secure and stable."
The smoke-filled air on board the vessel cleared enough for officials and investigators to walk through by lunchtime Monday, some 11 hours after the shipyard first reported the fire at 1:38 a.m.
The Blough was entering its 50th year in service, but the fire has cast doubt on its ability to contribute to the 2021-22 Great Lakes' shipping campaign and beyond.
“Thankfully, there were no injuries and the fire was contained to just the one ship,” Fincantieri Marine Group spokesman Eric Dent wrote the News Tribune from Washington, D.C., calling it premature to speculate on the Blough’s “future operational availability.”
Investigations by the fire department locally, and also the United States Coast Guard were wrapping up.
Dietman said he expects to address the cause and specifics of the fire next week, saying his department concluded its investigation Thursday and is preparing its findings.
A frequent visitor to the Twin Ports, the Roger Blough is a de facto resident of the port of Duluth-Superior, given its inclusion in the Great Lakes Fleet of ore boats, a nine-vessel roster operated by Key Lakes Inc., of Duluth, and owned Canadian National Railway.
Key Lakes did not respond to inquiries about what it might have planned for the ship.
Flames burned a third of the ore boat at the Blough’s aft end, affecting living quarters, the kitchen, or galley, and down into the engine room, Dietman said.
“It’s pretty severely affected,” he said, comparing it to a similar fire at the same Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding site in 2015, when the 519-foot Alpena absorbed a similar aft-end burn which saw the vessel recovered to continue sailing.
“This was worse than that one,” Dietman said.
While nobody was injured, there was a ship keeper on board when the fire department was paged.
The man “was able to self-rescue,” Dietman said.
Sturgeon Bay isn’t a transient port, like Duluth-Superior, with cargoes sailing in and out. Instead, it’s known as a major Great Lakes shipyard, where 10 to 20 vessels winter every offseason, their maintenance and repair tended to by scores of tradespeople.
When the laid-up boats are in Sturgeon Bay, most everything on board the boats is shut down.
“We treat them like dead-in-the-water floating vessels,” Dietman said.
And even though the local firefighters have trained on the Wilfred Sykes and the Joseph L. Block while those vessels have been in port, it didn’t necessarily transfer to knowledge of the Blough, which, like many vessels, is a one of a kind.
“Anybody who’s part of a ship-board fire knows that you’re basically turning on an oven to 1,000 to 1,200 degrees and crawling into it,” Dietman said. “It takes a while to cool the steel enough so you don’t get reignition and to operate within it. You can’t be rushing in. You have to be smart about what you’re doing in an extremely confined area where you have very little to look at and understand.”
The firefighters started arriving 4 minutes after they were paged. What they found was a boat on fire that was sandwiched by others.
The Blough was the second of four boats stacked and bound to one another, with the James Barker anchored to the dock, with the Blough bound to it. The American Mariner and John J. Boland were on the other side of the Blough.
As a young freighter, the Roger Blough, in 1975, returned from its path to search for the sunken Edmund Fitzgerald on the eastern end of Lake Superior. Though Blough has no sister ship, it shares a pilothouse trait with the Fitzgerald; both appear to be topped with what looks like the bill of a cap.
Even before Blough was launched in 1972, the ore boat was exposed to the perils of its kind. A fire killed four aboard the boat in 1971, delaying its arrival by a year, according to a history of the Blough on Boatnerd.com.
Fast forward a half-century, when fire consumed Blough once again.
The shipbuilding company said it was awaiting the results of the investigations.
“We will see what the investigation offers as to a cause, the extent of damage, and how we might prevent future incidents like this,” Dent said.
Dietman wouldn’t speculate on when the Blough would sail again.
A native of Ashland, he said he knows the port of Duluth-Superior well. He hoped the Blough would get back there.
“She’s a unique ship,” Dietman said. “Everyone in different parts of the Great Lakes has their different favorites. And she’s definitely a favorite of mine.”