Italian ConRo Abandoned in Bay of Biscay Due to Fire

grande america conro fire
The MV Grande America on fire in the Bay of Biscay, March 11, 2019. Photo: Premar Atlantic

Update: The Grande America has sunk in the Bay of Biscay

The crew of the HMS Argyll rescued 27 crew members of the roll-on/roll-off containership Grande America who were forced to abandon ship due to a fire on board in the Bay in Biscay overnight.

The frigate, which was on her way home to Plymouth after nine-month deployment in the Asia-Pacific region, responded to a mayday call from the 28,000-tonne Grimaldi Lines vessel about 150 miles southwest of Brest, France, reporting that a fire had broken out in the cargo of cars and containers and the crew was abandoning ship. 

All 27 crew members on board abandoned in a single enclosed lifeboat in conditions one engineer described as ‘horrendous’.

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The MV Grande America on fire in the Bay of Biscay. Photo: UK Royal Navy

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson commended the crew of HMS Argyll for their ‘swift and selfless response’ that ‘undoubtedly saved 27 lives’ in very dangerous and difficult conditions.

“This recue demonstrates that even on the final leg of a challenging nine month deployment to the Far East, the Royal Navy’s sailors remain vigilant and professional at all times,” said Williamson.

grande america rescue
UK Royal Navy

The lifeboat was “bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub” in the heavy seas, said Lieutenant Commander Dave Tetchner, HMS Argyll’s Weapon Engineer Officer.

“The conditions were horrendous – the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board,” Tetchner said.

“Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up, the sea boat was pushing the lifeboat against Argyll,” Tetchner added.

A video of the ship on fire and part of the rescue is below:

The 27 sailors rescued were being taken to the French port of Brest. Tetchner said none suffered life-threatening injuries but some required hospital treatment due to smoke inhalation.

The Italian-flagged MV Grande America was still ablaze when Argyll left the scene around 5 a.m. Monday morning.

The vessel was underway to Casablanca from Hamburg when the fire broke out at 8 p.m. Sunday evening.

The Commanding Officer of HMS Argyll, Commander Toby Shaughnessy, commented: “I am incredibly proud of my Ship’s Company and the way they performed in this rescue effort in the most challenging of conditions.

“Without doubt this was a near run thing. The conditions were on the limit for recovery and this could just as easily been a different result.

“It was an exceptional team effort and there’s a great feeling on board after a successful result – everyone was saved,” Commander Shaughnessy said.

According to French officials, the emergency towing vessel Abeille Bourbon arrived on scene and commenced firefighting at around 10 a.m. on Monday. As of Monday night, the fire was continuing to burn in the forward portion of the ship.