The fire on the car carrier Fremantle Highway in the North Sea is just the latest in a long and ever-growing list of fires involving vehicles on roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) vessels.
As we have reported, the Panama-flagged ship caught fire just before midnight on Tuesday after departing Bremerhaven, Germany on a voyage to Port Said, Egypt. All crew members abandoned ship or were rescued by helicopter. Sadly, one crew member has died and several sustained injuries.
The ship’s charterer, “K” Line, reported there were 3,783 total cars on board, including 498 electric vehicles, which is far more than the 2,857 units and 25 electric vehicles initially reported.
As of now the cause of the fire is unknown, but there are reports that the fire “started in the battery of an electric car”, according to a recording of a radio transmission released by Dutch broadcaster RTL. As the response continues, the incident recalls several previous fires involving stowed vehicles on roll-on/roll-off ships in recent years. Here’s a look at at some of those incidents:
Grande Costa D’Avorio
The Italian-flagged Grande Costa D’Avorio, a combination roll-on/roll-off (ConRo) ship caught fire on July 5, 2023, while loading used vehicles for export at Port Newark, New Jersey. Tragically, two firefighters were killed in the initial response and six others were injured. The fire continued to burn for about six days before it was extinguished.
The ship’s operator, Grimaldi Deep Sea, part of Italy-based Grimaldi Group, said the ship was carrying around 1,200 vehicles and 157 containers, but supposedly no electric vehicles or hazardous cargo was on board. The investigation into the root causes and contributing factors is being led by the U.S. Coast Guard along with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The Panama-flagged Felicity Ace, operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL), caught fire on February 16, 2022, approximately 90 nautical miles southwest of the Azores as the ship was underway from Embden, Germany to the U.S. East Coast. All 22 crew members abandoned ship safely.
The ship was reportedly carrying some 4,000 vehicles, including some electric vehicles and luxury brands like Porsches, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis, along with VW and Audis. The fire continued to burned until the ship sank about two weeks later on March 1, 2022. The Panama Maritime Authority’s investigation report into the incident was submitted to the IMO in May but is not yet publicly available.
Grimaldi’s Höegh Xiamen was carrying 2,420 used vehicles on board when it caught fire in in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 4, 2020. Nine firefighters were injured in the response and the fire took over a week to extinguish, resulting in the total loss of the vessel and cargo. The NTSB investigation revealed the fire started due to an electrical fault from an improperly disconnected battery in a used vehicle.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire was ineffective oversight of longshoremen by Grimaldi Deep Sea, the ship’s charterer, and SSA Atlantic, Grimaldi’s contractor for stevedores, who failed to identify that Grimaldi’s own vehicle battery securement procedures were not being followed. The crew’s failure to reactivate the fire detection system after loading was completed and the Master’s decision to delay the release of the carbon dioxide fixed fire extinguishing system contributed to the extent of the fire in the car carrier.
“The transportation of used vehicles, such as those that were loaded on vessels like the Höegh Xiamen, is currently excepted from Hazardous Materials Regulations when a vessel has a stowage area specifically designed and approved for carrying vehicles,” NTSB said in the report. “We found that used vehicles are often damaged and present an elevated risk of fire. We believe that greater inspection, oversight, and enforcement are needed to reduce this risk.”
As the NTSB’s report pointed out, Grimaldi had developed a battery disconnect procedure for its vessels in response to previous fires. However, the Coast Guard’s post-accident examination of a sample of 59 vehicles from Höegh Xiamen found not a single battery that was secured in accordance with the disconnect procedure, even though the procedure was in place at the time of the accident.
Interestingly, the NTSB report into the Höegh Xiamen fire highlighted five similar accidents since 2015, including a 2019 fire aboard another Grimaldi ship, the Grande Europa.
The fire on board the Grimaldi vessel Grande Europa started on May 15, 2019, while the vessel was underway about 25 miles off Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Its cargo consisted of 1,687 vehicles, including cars, vans, trucks, and excavators, the majority of which were new. There were also 49 containers containing mainly food products.
The initial fire started on vehicle deck 3, but was extinguished by the ship’s crew in about 45 minutes. A few hours later, however, a second fire started on a separate deck and spread from there. Grimaldi’s preliminary investigation into the incident suggested that the two fires started from two different new vehicles stowed on board and then spread to the other vehicles nearby.
The day after the incident, Grimaldi issued a press release calling for more controls on car batteries, as well as the total prohibition of personal effects in second-hand vehicles on roll-on/roll-off vessels. They also called more stringent controls and regulations on not only rolling cargo, also containers.
The Grimaldi ConRo Grande America sank in the Bay of Biscay back on March 12, 2019, two days a cargo fire broke out on a voyage from Hamburg, Germany to Casablanca, Morocco. The ship was carrying around 860 tons of dangerous goods and about 2,100 new and used vehicles.
Similar to the Felicity Ace, Italian authorities have submitted final reports to the IMO, but they are not yet publicly available. However, the NTSB says investigators were unable to determine a definite origin and cause of the fire, or fires, other than that fire teams found sparks coming from a truck on a vehicle deck. The fire was fought with dry chemical extinguishers, and later the vessel’s fixed CO2 system. The ship eventually lost power, and the fire spread to or started separately in a cargo container.
The crew abandoned ship and were rescued without any injuries. The vessel sank in about 13,000 feet of water and its VDR was never recovered.
The 650-foot Sincerity Ace, with 21 crew members on board, caught fire December 31, 2018, while in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about 1,800 nautical miles from Oahu, forcing the master to order the vessel abandoned. Due to its distance to land, nearby commercial ships were the first to arrive on scene, helping to rescue 16 crew members. Tragically, five crew members lost their lives in the incident.
The Panama-flagged ship, operated by MOL, was reportedly carrying 3,800 Nissan vehicles, but the exact cause of the fire is still unknown. The fire continued to burn for several days and the ship was eventually towed back to Japan. Again, the Panama Maritime Authority has submitted its investigation report to the IMO, but the report has not been made publicly available.
Interestingly, the crew of the US-flagged car carrier Green Lake, which was the first ship on the scene, was been presented with the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Gallant Ship Citation in recognition of their efforts in the response. The award has only been awarded to 41 ships since 1944, and the last ship to receive the status was in 1944.
On February 24, 2017, the 623-foot-long US-flagged car carrier Honor, operated by U.S.-based ARC, was en route from Southampton, England, to Baltimore, Maryland, when a fire broke out in the upper vehicle deck. The fire was extinguished by the crew using the vessel’s fixed CO2 firefighting system. The accident resulted in extensive damage to the Honor’s hold as well as its cargo of about 5,000 vehicles. The Honor operated between various ports in the U.S and Europe, carrying new production vehicles, military vehicles, and personally owned used vehicles for military and government personnel, as well as household goods shipments.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fire was a fault in the starter motor solenoid in one of the personally owned vehicles being transported in the vessel’s cargo space. One injury was attributed to the firefighting efforts.
On June 2, 2015, another ARC car carrier, Courage, suffered a fire in its cargo hold during a voyage from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Southampton, United Kingdom. The US-flagged vessel carried new production vehicles (Mercedes-Benz and BMW), military vehicles, personally-owned used vehicles for military and government personnel, and household goods shipments. The accident resulted in extensive damage to the vessel’s cargo hold as well as the vehicles and household goods. As a result of the damage, estimated at $40 million total, the vessel’s owners scrapped the vessel.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fire was electrical arcing in the automatic braking system module of a vehicle carried on board.
Notable Mentions: Arc Independence and Höegh Transporter
In 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard investigated two car carrier fires in addition to the Höegh Xiamen fire. The Arc Independence, a US-flagged vessel, experienced a cargo hold fire while underway on August 30, 2020, about 180 miles offshore of Jacksonville. The fire was detected by the ship’s detection system and contained to a single vehicle thanks to efforts by the crew using fire extinguishers.
A few months later, on November 17, 2020, the Norwegian-flagged Höegh Transporter experienced a fire while being fumigated at Blount Island’s Pier 20 in Jacksonville before setting sail. The fire was reported to have started in a new vehicle after cargo operations were complete. The fire was extinguished without further damage.
While it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the Fremantle Highway fire and others from previous incidents, a look back at similar incidents does provide some insight and background about the dangers associated with transportation of new and used vehicles on roll-on/roll-off ships. With the growing popularity of electric vehicles, it will be interesting to see how or if rules and regulations evolve to meet new challenges associated with transporting them by ship.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has released its report into a 2021 fire on board a multi-purpose vessel chartered by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) while transiting the Southern...
November 24, 2023
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