The meltdown aboard the H.H. Hess

Every now and again, you find something interesting that is worth telling.  The other day I had the opportunity to go aboard the USNS H. H. Hess, moored in the Suisun Bay mothball fleet.   The following is a rare glimpse inside one of the boilers on the USNS H.H. Hess.  Even the untrained eye might notice that something doesn’t seem quite right.  What you are seeing is the melted interior of the starboard Foster-Wheeler propulsion boiler on board this ex. hydrographic survey ship.  This is a rare sight because keeping one’s boiler from melting is usually one of the fundamental operating principles in any steam plant.  Some how, some way, the machinery watch on the H.H. Hess allowed this spectacular casualty to take place sometime in late 1991 or early 1992.  I’m not certain exactly how this happened, but it definitely appears that lack of water was probably the prime culprit.

Melted tubes inside the boiler of the Hess
More remains of the melted boiler interior of the Hess

History of the H.H. Hess –

  • Laid down, 10 August 1963, for the American Mail Lines as SS Canada Mail a Maritime Administration type (C4-S-1sa) hull, at National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., San Diego, CA, under Maritime Administration contract (MA hull 154)
  • Launched, 30 May 1964
  • Delivered to the Maritime Commission, 12 March 1965, and placed in service by American Mail Lines
  • Returned to the Maritime Commission for lay up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet (date unknown)
  • Acquired by the US Navy in 1977
  • Placed in service with the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) as USNS H. H. Hess (T-AGS-38) (date unknown)
  • Placed out of service, 16 January 1992, at Port Canaveral, FL.
  • Struck from the Naval Register, 5 February 1992
  • Transferred, 1 June 1993 to the Maritime Administration (MARAD) for lay up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Bay, Benicia, CA.

Unfortunately the future for the Hess is grim.  This type of casualty is far to expensive to fix and the ship’s age has caught up with her.  MARAD has her designated as non-retention, slated for disposal in the near future.  There are literally no details about the casualty that I can find, the ship for the most part remained quiet and behind the scenes, even when active as she performed classified hydrographic surveys to support the SSBN fleet.

Below is a short video of the boiler and machinery space (I apologize for the quality/low lighting).

9 Comment

  1. Phil Brooks says: Reply

    Hello Nathan;  I wonder if you might have other pictures of the USNS Hess.  A friend and I maintain a site about the TAGS vessels, and we recently learned that the Hess took over for the Michelson when it was removed from service.  Our site:  Do you have any other fotos of the Hess?  Can we post a link to this video, or copy it for our site?  And, last but not least, do you know if it would be possible to arrange a visit to the Hess?  We know little about her, and would like to post pictures and any other info we can find.  I served aboard two of the other TAGS, the Michelson and the Dutton.  Thank you!

    Phil Brooks

  2. Bennett says: Reply

    I learned by way of a former shipmate that the Hess is currently being towed to a shipbreaking facility in Texas. 

  3. Nathan says: Reply

    Bennett, you should check out Vern Bouwman’s page detailing the tow to Brownsville.,H-H/index.html  

  4. Aaron says: Reply

    here is whats left of her

  5. Martin Bennett says: Reply

     I was on the Hess during this incident. My knowledge matches your account. We went on survey to Portugal on one boiler. Martin Bennet,  HMC (ret)

  6. Rob Petrosino says: Reply

    I was there immediately after the boiler incident that took place in norfolk VA while tied up at NOB.. The ship had been testing and retesting the boiler safeties for USCG. There were also some repairs to boiler control automation in process. The fuel oil solenoids were pinned open in order to keep the boiler on line while testing the automation.. The water drum gauge glass hadn’t been blown down, giving false reading of level in the drum. The boiler was running with one burner on for appx 90 minutes and ZERO water. Luckily, the crew did not attempt to cool the drum which was glowing cherry red at time of discovery. The crew was notified that they had a problem by a neighboring ship witnessing flame chutes from the stack..

  7. Andy Mann says: Reply

    I was there too. We were tied up at Norfolk (Pier 4 I believe). We had just come down from the North Atlantic and through the hurricane that tossed us around for a couple of days! While docked at Norfolk, I remember seeing the chief engineer (Bobby I think his name was) and several other engine crew standing outside the engine room looking in. They all looked very nervous with sweat dripping off them. When I asked if anything was wrong, they immediately answered (not making eye contact and in a preoccupied way)…….not at all. That’s when I went back to my room and started packing. We were evacuated shortly after. Got back on the ship later and continued on to Portugal then on to the Canary Islands on one engine. I flew home in mid December of 1990.

  8. Andy Mann says: Reply

    ….Sorry, might have been 1991 not 1990.

  9. Martin Bennett HMC (Ret) says: Reply

    This incident took place in Sep 1991. Our unit had just transferred on board after USNS Tanner was put in a Mobile , AL shipyard to repair damage from an engine room fire. The Hess was run by a contract crew. I have a few pictures of the blistered paint on the stack but did not take pictures of the boiler. I also have many other photos. It was a very unusual ship in all ways.

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