The bulk carrier MV Iron Pacific was the biggest ship registered to an Australian company at the time of this incident. The origins of BHP (the Broken Hill Proprietary Company) go back to the the silver, lead and zinc mines the company developed at Broken Hill in New South Wales during the late-1800s. By around 1917, BHP had established a steelworks at Newcastle in the state, and eventually sold its metal mines to other interests. To transport its raw materials, BHP subsequently established a shipping division that became a behemoth in the commodities maritime trades. It’s now known as BHP Billiton Transport & Logistics.
The bulk carrier Iron Pacific was built for BHP by Samsung Shipbuilding and Heavy Industries Company Ltd at Koje, Korea, where the hull was launched on 1st August, 1986. Iron Pacific was registered at Melbourne as IMO 851597 and call sign VJDI. She was 315.02 metres long, and 55.73 metres beam, with nine holds and 231,851 tonnes deadweight. With a design requirement that the ship should be capable of accessing the rather restricted harbours of Newcastle and Port Kembla, a unique twinskeg design was selected. Each of the skegs had sizeable bulbs and the twin-screw design with controllable pitch propellers provided excellent manoeuvrability without the need for bow thrusters. When built the Iron Pacific was the largest twin-screw vessel in the world.
The ship’s engine room accommodated two Sulzer 4RTA84 two-stroke, 840 mm bore by 2,400 mm stroke, single-acting diesel main engines. The engines were built by Ishikawajima Harima Heavy Industries of Japan, and each drove a Lips variable-pitch propeller. At 74 rpm, the engines were rated at 9,120 kilowatts each, and when operated at 70 rpm they developed 7,862 kw each. The service speed was 14.25 echo sounder and Raytheon weather facsimile were installed. Marconi satellite communications, radio direction finder and radio equipment were also fitted. Full bridge control of the main machinery was installed allowing for unmanned machinery operation. The machinery was controlled by a Racal Marine automation system that according to those who sailed on the ship gave considerable trouble in operation.
Iron Pacific was built to carry cargoes from Australia to the Far East and, on the return leg, iron ore from Port Hedland to the BHP’s own works at Port Kembla and Newcastle. The voyage pattern became known as the “Triangle Run” and, in 2000, another vessel was built named the Pacific Triangle. The vessel also loaded coal in NSW and Queensland, including Port Kembla, Newcastle and Dalrymple Bay/ Hay Point for delivery to South Korean steel works at Pohang and Kwangyang Bay. On a typical voyage, the ship would load around 180,000 tonnes of coal, though one of the largest cargoes carried was of about 207,000 tonnes that was discharged in just three days using five grabs.
The story is continued by Mr Brian Moncrieff, who was serving on the ship as Third Engineer at the time of the eruption: -
Due to the size of the ship, there were only a limited number of dry docks able to accommodate her. Therefore, when the five-year docking came due, she was booked into the Subic Bay, Philippines dry dock, and arrived at Subic Bay early in June 1991. The ship was successfully installed in the dock on blocks that had to be especially arranged to cater for the stern propulsion skegs. Underwater fittings were removed for survey. One of the propellers was being readied for removal when Mount Pinatubo, 40 kilometres away, started to show signs of a imminent serious eruption. As the signs became more ominous, the dockyard staff fled the site leaving the ship’s crew to its fate.
An initial eruption occurred two days prior to the major eruption. A light sprinkling of white volcanic ash was just a prelude to what none of us had ever experienced before. It was certainly not an experience that a seafarer normally encounters. When the major eruption occurred on 15 June, 1991, the dock buildings and the ship were covered in a large quantity of ash. The ship’s crew had awakened to daylight, but this disappeared completely at 0800 until the following day. When daylight eventually returned it revealed a muchchanged landscape – from lush green vegetation to a grey ash-covered mess. The second day also witnessed arrival of typhoon Yunya (Philippines typhoon Diding) which brought torrential rain. The eruption resulted in the ship being covered in six inches of ash and pumice, with an estimated weight of 7,000 tonnes. The heavy rain turned the volcanic ash into a sodden mess. The ash atop the dockyard buildings absorbed so much water that it caused the buildings to collapse.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the second largest volcanic eruption during the 20th century, and, over five cubic kilometres of material was ejected into the atmosphere.
At sea it’s second nature for a seafarer to feel the movement of a ship on the water, but the 250-plus earth tremors encountered on eruption day, and the movement and shaking of the ship whilst resting on docking blocks, was quite unnerving. The earthquakes gave quite a concern to all because of the effect it might have on the dock caisson, and whether it would withstand the sea pressure in the face of the seismic activity.