Five major container fires in the last 12 months highlight the risks and challenges faced extinguishing fires and cleaning up the aftermath
Container ships pose a risk to salvors because of their size, cargo complexity and misdeclared cargo. There was a worrying trend of rising box ship fires and lost cargo in the past year, which salvors found challenging to deal with.
Cargo insurers estimate US$130M of cargo was damaged in four container ship fires underwritten in London. These were on ER Kobe, APL Vancouver, Maersk Honam and Yantian Express.
Cargo insurer RSA’s global marine claims leader, Peter de Boissiere, said risks and salvage complexity are increasing. “It can [take] months to extinguish fires and we are looking at salvage services on longer periods.”
US$130M of cargo damaged in four container ship fires
He said the risk to life and the marine environment has risen, adding, “We are looking at increases in the percentage of salvage costs and accumulation of risk.”
At the International Salvage Union’s Associates Members Day, in London, in March, salvors explained how they were tackling more extensive fires on container ships amid concerns that operations were hampered by a lack of manifest information.
The latest casualty, Grimaldi’s roro container ship Grande America, was ravaged by fire before sinking in the Bay of Biscay on 12 March. Salvage group Ardent attended that casualty. It also assisted container ship APL Vancouver when it suffered a fire in one of its cargo holds on 31 January on a passage to Singapore.
Ardent is still clearing up the seas off Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands after MSC Zoe lost containers over board on 2 January. Ardent director for Europe, Middle East and Africa Jason Bennett said a huge part of a container ship fire is clearing up the aftermath.
“There has been an increase in container ship fires, with three already this year”
“There has been an increase in these casualties, with three already this year,” said Mr Bennett. To tackle container ship fires “we need to have a turnkey solution that includes waste removal and bringing the vessel into a yard for clean-up, this can be a huge undertaking,” he said.
Smit Salvage provided clean-up services on Maersk Honam, which caught fire on 6 March 2018. Once the fire was extinguished, the damaged vessel was towed to Dubai Drydocks, UAE, where the damaged fore section was separated from the aft segment, said Smit Salvage managing director Richard Janssen.
He explained that the aft section was towed to South Korea to be attached to a new fore hull, while all fire waste had to be disposed of in Dubai. This included 7,000 tonnes of scrap metal, 16,000 tonnes of non-metallic debris and 4,000 tonnes of contaminated waste.
Smit Salvage used two heavy-lift crane jack-ups, JB-114 and BAM International’s IB 909, one on the bow of Maersk Honam, the other alongside.
“We looked at the structural integrity of the hull and did site-specific surveys for positioning the jack-ups,” said Mr Janssen. The jack-ups were positioned September 2018 and the aft section was towed away in November.
One challenge was “the fore segment, which is designed for speed, had to remain stable while the aft section was towed away,” he said. Another challenge was “the continuous movement of damaged cargo and chemicals” on the damaged fore section, said Mr Janssen. Smit leased capacity at Port Khalid in nearby Sharjah from Albwardy Damen to store the waste.
“We transported the debris – steel, ash, cargo remains and contaminated liquids – to Sharjah where it was processed and analysed,” said Mr Janssen.
Salvors often bring in fire-fighting specialists to assist container ship casualties. RelyOn Nutec, previously named Falck Safety Services, marine fire-fighting expert Gert-Jan Langerak presented the conditions and operations involved in fighting container fires. “Once on the scene we make it safe for crew and salvors,” he explained. “We change the vessel's position by using high-power tugs to turn the ship to prevent fumes from entering the accommodation.”
“We change position of the vessel by using high-power tugs to prevent fumes from entering the accommodation”
Salvors then conduct risk assessments and contain the fire by using fire-fighting tugs and with teams on board the casualty. “We use tugs to prevent the fire spreading by cooling deck hatches and ship structures,” Mr Langerak said.
Steps to tackle a container ship fire
They use thermal cameras to identify hot containers and monitor fire spreading. “We cool containers in the hold with water spray and can put fire hoses into containers to reduce the heat and smoke,” said Mr Langerak. His company prevents water running off the ship into the sea as it becomes a pollutant.
There are also issues with towing the damaged ship. “No port will accept smoking containers, therefore, we need to extinguish the fires before entering the port,” said Mr Langerak. This is done by cutting holes and spraying water into the containers. His knowledge comes from experience in fire-fighting on container ships, such as Hyundai Fortune that caught fire in the Gulf of Aden in March 2006.
Container fire solution
Resolve Marine Group director of Europe, Middle East and Africa Nick Sloane explained some of the growing risks and salvage issues with ultra-large container ships. These are 400 m long, have 60-m beams, 20,000 tonnes of bunkers and thousands of container on board. “Ships are becoming larger, but the crew is smaller, with just 14 on board,” he said.
“Manifests can be problematic, cargo can be misdeclared and it is challenging not understanding what could ignite.” He said fires could become uncontrollable and would continue until there is no cargo left to burn.
“Portable fire breaks would slow down the fire and protect crew and machinery”
Capt Sloane suggested a way to prevent fire from spreading across the rest of the ship and cargo was to use a layer of sacrificial containers as a barrier. “Containers would be filled with fire retardant and be used to protect the engineroom, accommodation and could surround hazardous cargo,” said Capt Sloane.
“These portable fire breaks would slow down the fire and protect crew and machinery.” Capt Sloane said another method of reducing fire risk is to stop misdeclared cargo from being loaded onto ships. “People are not all responsible and reliable. Cargo can be badly stowed and misdeclared, which can cause damage,” he explained.
Oil spill challenges
Also at the conference, ITOPF senior technical advisor Nicky Cariglia highlighted how the size of oil spills in maritime accidents had fallen over the last five decades. “The volume of oil has declined, but even a minor incident can cause headaches,” she said. “Even a spill of 2,000 litres of oil can have political ramifications.”
She said environmental issues have become more complicated and insurance claim negotiations from casualties can be extensive and prolonged.
Shipping companies “can be involved in claims for several years,” Ms Cariglia said. “There are blurred lines for low long and how much insurers are responsible [for] – there are grey areas,” she said.
Salvors and insurers find the rise in maritime accidents challenging , but depend on the expertise of tug operators, fire-fighters and experienced crew.
Major container ship fires (2018-19)
Container pollutants prevented