The Panama-registered, 18,500 tonne ‘Fremantle Highway’ had left the German port of Bremen and was bound for the Suez Canal in Egypt when it caught fire off the coast of the Netherlands. It was headed for a final destination of Kobe, Japan, via Singapore and Taipei in Taiwan.
The priority for salvage crews was to tow the stricken vessel away from the North Sea shipping channels and sensitive island habitats in the Netherlands.
The incident was the latest of many fires on car carriers in recent times with those responsible for managing the safety of cargoes and crews on vehicle ships still grappling for solutions to the issue.
There have been eight major incidents on car carriers since 2002, or an average of one every two and a half years. Apart from danger to crew members, car fires at sea tend to burn ferociously, are almost impossible to extinguish and usually result in total loss of the vehicle cargo.
Car ships have height-adjustable decks to maximise the number of vehicle floors on the ship and cars are stored just centimetres apart. So access to fires for fire fighting is very limited. An ICE car fire burns at around 1500 degrees centigrade and fires can be easily extinguished on board by releasing CO2.
But an EV with thermal runaway burns at 5000 degrees, cannot be controlled by CO2 and can take well over 100,000 litres per car to extinguish. Pouring very large quantities of water into a ship to cool down the burning batteries can also sink the vessel, effectively from the inside.
This latest fire on the Fremantle Highway Felicity Ace is the fifth since the Grande America, a roll-on roll-off vessel with more than 2000 new and used vehicles on board, sank in the Bay of Biscay after the cars ignited.
In the most recent fire a coast guard official is quoted in various media as saying the fire was expected to burn for days. Crews are concerned that if they pour too much water into the fire the hull will fill and the vessel will sink.
Reports from the shipper, K-Line, said the vessel contained 498 electric vehicles and it is suspected – but not yet proven – that these were the cause of the fire.
Boats and helicopters evacuated 23 crew members from the ship after they failed to put out the blaze, the Dutch coast guard said. Seven crew members were plucked from the sea by boats after they jumped overboard to escape the flames.
Injured crew were suffering from smoke inhalation or suffered injuries during the evacuation and were taken by helicopter to medical facilities on the mainland.
The Dutch newspaper ‘Het Algemeen Dagblad’ reported that the ship was carrying 2857 cars, of which 25 were electric vehicles. One of the EVs may have caught on fire, Dutch news agency ANP reported, citing an unnamed coast guard official.
Mercedes-Benz said about 350 of the vehicles on board the ship were Mercedes vehicles, adding that the company was in contact with the transport provider.
A report by Automotive News said that the fire spread so quickly that seven crew members jumped overboard, according to Willard Molenaar of the Royal Dutch Rescue Company (KNRM), which was among the first at the scene.
Mr Molenaar told Dutch broadcaster NOS some people were injured jumping the long way down into the water, while one crew member had died in the flames.
Meanwhile, Lloyd’s of London listed an average of 50 major shipping accidents a year over the three-year period 2018-2020, or 150 total for the three-year-period.
It said that 7.75 per cent of shipping casualties were attributed to fire and/or explosion.
The number of vessel fires has been increasing in line with the sudden surge in sales of electric vehicles and is putting a premium on the fees charged by shipping underwriters.
The major vessel accidents in which vehicles were lost or damaged include:
2002: Car carrier Tricolore was rammed and sunk in the English Channel with the loss of 2871 BMWs, Volvos and Saabs. The ship was cut up and recycled and all the vehicles were scrapped.
2004: Car carrier Hyundai 105 collided with a Panama-registered and fully-laden oil tanker near Singapore. Hyundai 105 sank, losing 4191 new Hyundai and Kia cars and 1000 used Japanese cars.
2006: Car carrier Cougar Ace tipped over while moving its ballast, damaging 4700 Mazda vehicles. All vehicles were crushed and recycled.
2012: A car carrier had a collision with another ship off the Netherlands and sank, killing 11 crew members. Part of the cargo was 1400 Mitsubishi vehicles which were scrapped.
2015: The Hoegh Osaka rolled in shallow water off England. Investigators said it was caused by not having enough ballast water in its hold and too many vehicles – Land Rovers, Jaguars and Minis – parked too high on upper decks.
2016: Car carrier Modern Express tipped over in heavy winds off the coast of Spain. It was righted and its cargo of earth-moving equipment was unloaded.
2019: Car carrier the Golden Ray capsized off the coast of Georgia, US, with a load of 4200 Kias and Hyundais. The ship and the cars were declared a total loss.
2019: The Grande America, a roll-on roll-off vessel with more than 2000 new and used vehicles on board, sank in the Bay of Biscay after the cars ignited. The crew of 26 tried to combat the fire but, within hours, the heat was so intense that it weakened the structural integrity of the ship’s bulkheads and hull. There was little that any of the crew members could do but to abandon ship.
2019: Two other vessels reported car fires including a Mitsui OSK Lines car transport carrying 3500 Nissan vehicles, which led to the death of five crew members and severe damage to the vessel and cargo.
2022: The Felicity Ace caught fire and sank near the Azores Islands in the Atlantic, with total loss of an estimated 8000 Volkswagen, Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini vehicles. It was believed the fire was caused by an EV battery fault.
2022: A Greek ferry taking passengers and cars to Italy caught fire with 11 of the 290 people on board losing their lives. There was no indication if an EV started the fire although the company said the fire started in the vehicle hold.
2023: Two New Jersey firefighters were killed and five injured battling a blaze on an Italian cargo ship carrying 1200 new and used vehicles. The fire started when the ship was docked at the Port of Newark, New Jersey. The cargo did not contain any electric vehicles.
By Neil Dowling