After burning and smouldering for two weeks, container feeder vessel X-Press Pearl has begun to sink in waters off the coast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean
Vessel operators X-Press Feeders have confirmed the fire was continuing to burn despite hopes it had been brought under control.
In a statement, X-Press Feeders said the vessel’s aft section had sunk after attempts by salvors, assisted by the Sri Lankan Navy, to tow the vessel into deeper waters failed.
"Despite salvors successfully boarding the vessel and attaching a tow wire, efforts to move the ship to deeper waters have failed, and the ship’s aft portion is now touching bottom at a depth of 21 m. As of 15:00 Sri Lanka time, the foreward area of the vessel remains afloat with smoke coming out of Cargo Holds No 1 and 2," the statement said.
The company said an inspection team had been able to board the 186-m vessel on the afternoon of 1 June, and reported the engineroom flooded, prompting concerns over the amount of water in the hull and its effect on the ship’s stability. Towing efforts on 1 June were halted due to a heavy swell and safety concerns for the salvors on board.
X-Press Feeders said they had planned an attempt to tow the vessel "in a westerly direction, away from the coastline", where the company said "contractors continue working with local authorities on their fifth day of shoreline clean up efforts to safely dispose of any debris that has washed up".
The 2,700-TEU container feeder vessel is carrying a cargo of cosmetics and chemicals, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, which is highly toxic, and was believed to have leaked and caused the fire to start on board.
Singapore-based shipowners X-Press Shipping confirmed the crew had been aware of the leak, but said they were denied access by both Qatar and India before anchoring off the Sri Lankan coast.
The UK’s BBC news quoted an environmental scientist as saying the ship sinking where it was would "basically destroy the whole bottom of the sea".
26 May, 2021
Sri Lanka’s Navy have said crew members aboard container feeder ship X-Press Pearl were evacuated when windy conditions exacerbated a fire on board the vessel.
The 25 crew members and salvors on site were evacuated as the blaze grew out of control and caused an explosion on the box ship, which was anchored near Colombo, on Sri Lanka’s west coast, on Tuesday.
2021-built X-Press Pearl was en route from Hazira port in Gujarat, India to Singapore, and the vessel was anchored 9.5 nautical miles northwest of the Colombo Port when a container caught fire, according to the vessel’s owners.
The fire had been thought to be under control, however weather conditions intensified the blaze.
In a statement on 25 May, shipowners X-Press Feeders said, "Despite the best efforts of salvors and firefighting tugs, the blaze had spread overnight, fanned by strong winds. With the crew’s safety of utmost importance to X-Press Feeders, the decision was made to evacuate them. X-Press Feeders will continue to work closely with the
Sri Lankan authorities and emergency services with assistance from its appointed salvors to extinguish the blaze and to save the vessel and its cargo."
The Sri Lankan Navy said the fire broke out in the forecastle area and spread to the quarterdeck, exacerbated by strong winds due to changing weather conditions. Some containers have fallen into the sea and are believed to have sunk. The 2,700-TEU container feeder vessel is carrying a cargo of cosmetics and chemicals, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid.
An effort was underway to try to move Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl away from the shoreline and to begin oil spill mitigation measures. On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s state minister of Fishery Harbours, Kanchana Wijesekera said “The Department of Fisheries is working together with MEPA, Navy, Coast Guard and other authorities to contain and clean up the oil spill to minimise the damage to the marine environment.”
Following an emergency request from Sri Lanka, India deployed a Dornier aircraft, patrol vessels Vaibhav, Vajra, pollution control vessel Samudra Prehari and a tug for assistance with rescue and pollution control.
In addition, the Indian Coast Guard formations at Kochi, Chennai and Tuticorin are on standby for assistance with pollution response.
The vessel’s owners said specialised firefighting equipment had arrived from Europe to join the salvage operations.
Sri Lankan authorities said experts from the Netherlands and Belgium were surveying the ship. The country’s minister for shipping Rohitha Abeygunawardena was quoted by Reuters as saying “A special Dutch flight with vital equipment to contain the fire is now expected to reach Sri Lanka.”