It happened on Thursday, 3. January, around six in the morning. The container freighter "Yantian Express" of the shipping line Hapag-Lloyd plowed under German flag course northwest through the heavy seas of the churned up North Atlantic, when from a container suddenly fire clouds came out.
Flames spread to neighboring containers, and within a very short time, the crew faced a dangerous container fire that threatened to spread to the entire ship. In the middle of dark nowhere. More than 1000 kilometers away from the rescuing country, a near-fatal inferno.
The crew was evacuated by tugboats, and the freighter was left burning on the high seas for days. It was not until six days after the outbreak, when two salvage ships had continuously cooled down the freighter with extinguishing guns, that Hapag-Lloyd was able to report that the fire on the "Yantian Express" had been largely extinguished.
Fires on container ships can also be fatal
Container fires do not always end so smoothly. Five seamen died last year in a devastating fire on the container freighter Maersk Honam in the Indian Ocean. Only ten days later, a fire broke out in the hold of another container ship belonging to the Danish shipping company, the Maersk Kensington. The "MSC Flaminia" also had little luck, drifting for days on the open sea after a fire broke out and several containers exploded. Three sailors died, two were seriously injured.
"Container fires at sea are a major problem," says Uwe-Peter Schieder, shipping expert at the German Insurance Association. Between 2000 and 2015, just under 60 fires on container ships were reported worldwide.
The number of unreported incidents in which fires were prevented at the last moment because pockets of embers were detected in time is much higher. "It's already commonplace in maritime shipping for containers to heat up uncontrollably," Schieder says. How can something like this happen? What is the secret of the burning freighters?
Shippers want to save on surcharge for dangerous goods
The cause of spontaneous combustion is usually not at sea, but on land, says fire expert Schieder. If biogenic materials are loaded too moist, there is a fundamental risk that decomposition processes will lead to heating, and if this heat builds up in the container, a fire will break out. Biogenic materials are constantly being shipped across the world's oceans. These are nuts, oil seeds, coconut fiber, cocoa beans, coal and wood.
"Even a large pack of waste paper, if it has become damp, can start a fire," says Schieder. The problem could be prevented if the goods were sufficiently dried before they were placed in a container. "But drying costs money. In addition, cargo is often sold by weight. Dry cargo is lighter. That's why it happens time and again that cargo that is too moist gets into containers for cost reasons," says Schieder.
The danger is even greater when highly flammable or explosive hazardous goods are stored in the vicinity of such goods. One of the biggest disasters was the fire of the "MSC Flaminia" eight years ago on a voyage from Charleston to Antwerp, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A chemical substance had probably caught fire. Finally, there was a huge explosion that threw several containers into the sea. Three crew members died. The rest of the firefighting crew, including two seriously injured, was cut off from the rest of the crew in the forecastle.
A lifeboat that had been launched was fortunately able to rescue the isolated firefighters. For five and a half weeks, fire-fighting vessels poured water incessantly on the burning freighter until the fire was finally extinguished. Even today, the cause has not been fully clarified, but it is certain that the accident began in a hazardous goods container.
Goods are often falsely declared?
Hazardous goods are not always labeled as such by shippers. "The most common causes of container fires at sea are incorrect declaration or storage in the wrong place," says Volker Dierks, who is responsible for insuring ships at Allianz Global Corporate Specialty SE in Central and Eastern Europe. There are uniform rules worldwide for the labeling of hazardous goods.
However, shippers often falsely declare goods in order to save on the transport surcharge for dangerous goods. "You can of course open the container. Then they see bags of non-hazardous stuff at the front, but they don't know what's stored behind them. I don't think you can completely rule out false declaration with today's methods," says the expert.
The situation is somewhat different in the case of incorrect stowage, explains Dierks. There are a number of substances that are known to react to heat and therefore should not be stored too close to the bulkhead to the engine room or to the bottoms of the bunker tanks, he said. Explosive goods should also be stored far away from the deck structures. Here, too, mistakes often occur, he said.
Lack of security on board
The Allianz expert also finds it not unusual that more and more fire incidents are becoming known on the high seas. "The global economy is growing and with it maritime trade. Compared with the number of goods transported every day, the number of accidents is still rather small."The shipping industry is keen to clear up such incidents, he said, because apart from the loss of image, such ship fires are also very costly. 13 percent of all shipping losses last year were due to fires and explosions, according to Allianz data. Only the total loss of ships, such as from serious collisions, caused higher damage costs in 2018, according to these calculations.
Dierks sees the increasing size of container ships, on which more and more cargo is being stowed on board, as a problem. "You can have the latest and greatest firefighting system on board and still not be 100 percent protected from such accidents."This is because a certain percentage of containers cannot be accessed by the crew in the event of an accident – for example, containers stored in the middle or under the hatch covers.
It's not just the exceptionally large container ships with 10.000 standard containers and more on board. "Even on a ship with 3500 to 4000 containers, numerous boxes are inaccessible at sea." It's even harder to tell if a box poses a danger in the first place, Schieder says. "Especially on the big container ships, that's not possible at the moment. These actually required infrared detectors that can be used to determine when an unexpected heat buildup appears at a location." However, the ships are not equipped with this.
Thirty years ago, ships were better protected against fires than they are today, Schieder complains. There were no sprinkler systems below deck, it said, and fire extinguishing cannons were missing. The lack of protection should not be blamed on the shipowners or the shipyards, which comply with the specifications. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) would set the regulations for securing sea transports. "Stricter standards would have to be demanded of her," Schieder says.
Meanwhile, the "Yantian Express" is still swimming on the Atlantic Ocean. Two tugs are on site, pulling the ship at a slow pace toward the Canadian coastline. The fire is largely contained. Part of the crew is back on board with the captain and with other salvage experts. Hapag-Lloyd does not yet want to comment on the extent of the damage.