Fire is one of the most dreadful events on board a ship. If a building is on fire, you may be able to get out and walk away to safety. On a ship, there is no chance to walk away, except evacuation via helicopter or lifeboats. The number of ship fires have not gone down in recent years, while other types of incidents have.
This article was written by SWZ|Maritime’s editor Björn von Ubisch MSc, Naval Architect and Marine Engineer, General Manager of Ubitec Holding BV, email@example.com. It was first published in SWZ|Maritime’s December 2022 issue.
In 2019, there were forty reported cargo related fires on large vessels (> 100 GRT). Container and Ro/Ro vessels dominate the cargo fire incidents. Total loss/founder because of cargo fire was about twenty per cent of all total loss/foundered vessels worldwide in 2020, although the number of total loss/founder incidents has gone down by fifty per cent over the last ten years. From 2005 to 2021, the total number of insurance claims (above USD 500,000) went down by forty per cent, while claims because of fire/ explosion remained about the same during this period.
Types of ship fires
The number of total losses of ships above 100 GRT is declining, but total losses as a result of fire have remained more or less stable from 2011 to 2020. The types of fires can be divided into three main categories: engine room fires, cargo/container fires, and accommodation fires. The latter do not occur very often and have not been much of a problem since the accident with the Scandinavian Star, see below.
Engine room fires are mainly due to poor maintenance. They are often caused by fuel oil leaks and lack of protection of hot spots on the engines. Cargo fires are very often caused by mis-labelling the cargo manifest. About thirty per cent of all cargo manifests are intentionally misdeclared to save on shipping cost and cause loss of human lives and hundreds of millions of USD in damage to cargo and ships plus the fact that insurance premiums are rising as a result of all the fires caused by deliberate misdeclaration of goods.
Below are some examples of different types of fires on board ships.
Also read: Allianz: ‘Fire, collision, sinking and damaged cargo top causes of marine insurance losses’
Engine room fires
Engine room fires are frequently caused by the low-pressure oil system leaking and developing a pool of oil that eventually catches fire. Another source is the high-pressure system spraying oil on hot parts of the engine, like the exhaust system. However, this is becoming less likely now that high-pressure pipes have to be shielded and hot parts of the engine have to be insulated. Crank case explosions are caused by small particles of lube oil ignited by a “hot spot” caused by metal friction. Often the metal friction is caused by improper maintenance and insufficient or little clearance. Examples of engine room fires are:
- Nordlys: The Hurtigruten cruise ship Nordlys experienced a fire and explosion in September 2011 while sailing along the west coast of Norway. Two crew members were killed and a dozen people were injured. The fire started in the engine room and caused a total blackout. The fire was caused by diesel oil from the low-pressure fuel system leaking to some hot parts of the main engine that did not have insulation. The water fire suppression system in the engine room was set to manual and not automatic, which delayed the extinguishing of the fire. The CO2 system was not activated as the whereabouts of the crew in the engine room area were not known. The emergency generator also failed, due to lack of cooling. Lack of crew training did not improve the situation.
- Peter Pan: The RoPax vessel Peter Pan had an engine room fire in July 2019. Nobody was injured. A cylinder rod in one of the diesel generators broke and penetrated the crank case. This resulted in a fire caused by the release of diesel oil and lube oil. It destroyed part of the machinery spaces.
- Tecumseh: In December 2019, the bulk carrier Tecumseh was transiting the Detroit River downbound near Windsor, Ontario, when a main engine failure occurred. The fire originated from the propulsion machinery, and there was major damage to engine room and ship. One crew member sustained minor injuries.
- President Eisenhower: The container ship President Eisenhower suffered an engine room fire in April 2021 off the coast of California. The crew fought the fire using fire hoses and a fixed water mist system, before using the engine room’s fixed CO2 fireextinguishing system, which extinguished the fire. The fire was caused by return fuel oil being sprayed on one of the hot parts of the main engine. The fuel leakage was caused by a faulty repair of the fuel return pipe.
- Carnival Freedom: Carnival Cruise line’s Carnival Freedom sustained a fire in the funnel in May 2022. The fire was extinguished by the crew.
- Spirit of Norfolk: The harbour tour vessel Spirit of Norfolk encountered a fire in the engine room in June 2022 off Norfolk, Virginia. There were no injuries and all of the 108 people on board were evacuated, including 89 school children. The vessel completely burned down.
- Salar: This 3400-TDW dry cargo vessel encountered a cargo fire May 2021 while in port in Sweden. The ship was loading scrap metal that was mixed with various types of combustible substances, also liquids, and the cargo caught fire due to sparks and heat by friction during the loading operation. The cargo manifest was misleading and not correct. No-one was injured.
- Ampar 8: The 3500-TDW crude oil carrier Ampar 8 caught fire in March 2022 during transit in Thailand killing one person and injuring one. The fire damaged the forecastle.
Also read: CMA CGM to equip entire fleet with container fire-fighting tool HydroPen
Fires on board RoRo and RoPax vessels
- Norman Atlantic: The RoPax vessel Norman Atlantic experienced a fire on one of the vehicle decks with tanker trucks carrying olive oil in December 2014. A gale was blowing at the time and a number of lifeboats caught fire and prevented evacuation via lifeboats. About 51 persons died.
- Grande America: The RoPax vessel Grande America of Grimaldi Line caught fire in March 2019, in the Bay of Biscay. All people on board were rescued by the Royal Navy. The fire started in one of the containers located on the weather deck and spread to adjacent containers. The ship eventually capsized and sank.
- Euroferry Olympia: Another Grimaldi Line RoPax vessel, the Euroferry Olympia, suffered a fire in February 2022 off Corfu, Greece. This resulted in eleven persons missing or dead. A number of “stowaways” were among the rescued. The fire started in a truck on one of the car decks. Apparently, some of the truck drivers had stayed in their trucks during passage, which is against procedures. The fire burned for five days.
- Stena Scandia: In August 2022, the RoPax vessel Stena Scandia encountered a fire on one of the vehicle decks, while sailing between Sweden and Latvia in the Baltic Sea. The fire caused a total blackout. The fire was most likely caused by a refrigerating unit on a truck. The crew extinguished the fire and after about eight to ten hours of drifting, the engineers managed to start two engines and the ship could slowly advance to port. There were no injuries.
- Andiamo: The privately owned yacht Andiamo (120 feet, 36.6 metres) suffered a fire in the accommodation in December 2019, due to candles left unattended in one of the VIP suites. There were no injuries and during the extinguishing operation, the yacht began to list and capsized at the marina in Miami, Florida, where the yacht was moored. Smoke detectors and the fire alarm did not work as well as the fire dampers and louvres. The yacht was declared a total loss.
Fires on board container ships
Fires on board container ships are often caused by the content of the cargo, packed in a shipping container. Each container comes with a manifest produced by the cargo’s shipper, declaring the nature, composition and weight of the cargo inside the container. Investigations have revealed that over fifty per cent of all cargo manifests are incorrect and of all cargo manifests about 33 per cent are deliberately so due to various reasons, such as:
- tax evasions and reduced custom duties;
- to hide the value of the cargo;
- to hide the actual weight of the cargo;
- to hide hazardous content as certain shipping lines do not accept certain types of cargo;
- to hide the illegal origin of the cargo; and
- plain old stupidity and/or laziness.
These data were revealed after a US investigation that involved 500 shipping containers. Cargo and its packing, separation and storage etc. are specified in the IMO International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG) Code.
There are various proposals on the market to reduce the number of container fires, such as heat sensors in holds that will detect and alarm about abnormal temperature rise and connecting containers with hazardous substances to the main fire line and remote release of fire water in case of temperature rise. This will require modifications to the containers in question.
The misdeclaration of cargo has resulted in several maritime disasters, environmental pollution and loss of human life. Below are some examples:
- MSC Flaminia: The container vessel MSC Flaminia encountered a fire and explosion in cargo hold number 4 in July 2012 in the middle of the North Atlantic. Three crew members died. Passengers and crew were evacuated to other vessels. After ten days, the fire was reported to be under control. The fire was caused by substances used to make plastic resins. The manifest was not correctly stating the nature of the cargo in certain containers. Consequently, the containers in question were stored incorrectly on shore as well as on board.
- Maersk Honam: The container ship Maersk Honam experienced a fire in March 2018 in number 3 cargo hold forward, while sailing in the Arabian Sea. The crew activated the hold CO2 system, but to no avail. Three days later, the fire was reported to be under control with the assistance of three other vessels. It turned out the fire was still smoldering after three days and continued to burn well into April. The fire was most likely caused by a powerful oxidiser, 1000 tonnes stored in 54 containers in the number 3 cargo hold. The IMDG Code did not at the time recognise the potential danger of this substance packed close together in large quantities.
- KMTC Hong Kong: The KMTC Hong Kong suffered an explosion in Laem Chabang alongside the quay in 2019. More than130 persons were injured and it was discovered that at least 35 containers contained hazardous substances that were not stated in the manifest.
- Yantian Express: A fire erupted on board the Yantian Express in January 2019. One container was loaded with coconut charcoal, which ignited and set adjacent containers on fire. The charcoal was not declared.
- ZIM Kingston: The container ship ZIM Kingston reported a fire on board while at anchor off Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in October 2021. The fire started in some damaged containers, which contained dangerous goods. The containers had been damaged a couple of days earlier when the vessel had listed heavily while drifting in adverse weather conditions. During the storm, 109 containers were lost. The fire was extinguished after a week. It is believed that the fire started in a container that was crushed as a result of other containers tumbling overboard. Two months later, while containers were offloaded from the ship, a new fire broke out in the insulation material of another damaged container.
- A fire at the Chittagong container depot in June 2022 killed at least 49 persons and injured 300. The fire was caused by a strong oxidiser, concentrated hydrogen peroxide. Multiple explosions followed the fire. A number of containers were obviously misdeclared.
Cruise ship fires
There are quite a few reported fires on board cruise ships. Many involve small fires that are quickly extinguished by the crew with the ship quickly on its way again. Most fires are engine room fires caused by leaking fuel oil and an indication of poor maintenance. Laundries are also a source of fire although these types of fires tend to have disappeared in recent years. Below are some examples of fires on board cruise ships. Please note that the list is not complete, but merely a sample of reported fires.
- Zenith Pullmantur Cruises: This cruise ship was cruising off the coast of Italy in June 2013 when a fire broke out. All 1800 passengers were evacuated, but the 600-person crew remained on board for five days. There was no power available during this period. In addition, there were no sanitary supplies, sewage did not work and food was rationed.
- Carnival Triumph: While cruising the Gulf of Mexico with 4200 people on board in February 2013, the Carnival Triumph encountered a fire in the engine room. This small fire resulted in a total blackout and as a result, all domestic services like ventilation, air-conditioning, sewage, hot and cold water, refrigeration and galley services shut down. There were no injuries and the fire was quickly extinguished. Smoke was also found in the accommodation. The cruise ship was drifting, was taken under tow and arrived in port after five days. Four of the six auxiliary diesel generators were operational at the time of the cruise. The others were inoperational, due to lack of maintenance. Fuel leakage in the vicinity of the auxiliary engines due to flexible fuel lines was also reported. Between 2011 and 2013, Carnival Cruise Line experienced nine fuel leaks in flexible fuel lines, not all resulting in a fire.
- Grand Princess: The Grand Princess suffered a fire in the main switchboard off Hawaii, in November 2013. The ship lost propulsion and power. Within an hour, the fire was extinguished and power and propulsion were restored.
- L’Boreal: The L’Boreal, cruising off the Falkland Islands in November 2015, reported an engine room fire and started evacuating the 347 passengers. The fire was caused by human error when replacing a clogged fuel oil filter.
- Splendour of the Seas: This cruise ship was cruising off the Greek coast in October 2015 when a fire erupted in the engine room. The fire was extinguished after two hours and during this time propulsion and electrical power were lost. After two hours, the ship was underway again but at reduced speed. About twenty people were injured by the smoke.
- Cruise Europa: A galley fire broke out on board the Cruise Europa in December 2015 while cruising in the Mediterranean. The sprinkler was activated and no injuries were reported. The ship continued the cruise after clean up.
- Black Watch: An engine room fire also troubled the Black Watch while sailing off Madeira in July 2016. The fire damaged three out of seven auxiliary engines. It was extinguished by the crew and no persons were injured.
- Emerald Princess: This cruise ship caught fire in September 2016 while it was cruising along the Canary Islands. There was a fuel leak in the engine room and all power was shut down, but this was quickly restored after clean up. The Emerald Princess also suffered an explosion in the aft ship in February 2017 while in port in New Zealand. The explosion was caused by a 45 kg gas bottle during maintenance work. One crew member was killed.
- MSC Lirica: This ship caught fire in March 2021 while alongside in Corfu, Greece. One of the enclosed lifeboats had caught fire and was quickly extinguished. There were no injuries.
A fire erupted in one of the garage decks on board the pure car carrier (PCC) Felicity Ace in February 2022. It sank some weeks later. All crew members were rescued. The fire burned for six days before it was extinguished. It is believed that the fire started in one of the lithium-ion battery banks in one of the many electric cars on board.
These battery fires can hardly be extinguished as the fire generates oxygen and very high heat. These types of batteries will also burn under water once the fire has started. Other battery fire incidents on board ships are:
- Conception: The US National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the 75-ft Conception, a dive boat that caught fire and sank off the California coast in 2019, determined the fire began in a middle deck area where lithium-ion batteries were being charged.
- Kanga: In 2018, MY Kanga caught fire while at anchor in the coastal area of Dubrovnik, Croatia. The safety investigation concluded that in all probability, the seat of the fire were the lithium-ion batteries, which had been used with electric surfboards.
- Golden Ray: The PCC Golden Ray capsized and sank in 2019 in Brunswick, Georgia, USA. The capsizing followed a fire on board in the cargo area that could not be extinguished. During the salvage and scrapping operation, the ship again caught fire. The ship was fully loaded with automobiles. There were no casualities.
- Höegh Xiamen: The PCC Höegh Xiamen caught fire in June 2020 in the Port of Jacksonville, Florida. The fire was caused by incorrect battery procedures in a consignment of secondhand cars and trucks. The fire took over a week to extinguish and the vessel was declared a total loss after. Nine fire fighters were injured. Since 2015, there have been at least five battery fires of this type, on board PCCs.
Also read: How a fire resulted in the total loss of car carrier Höegh Xiamen
Present situation with respect to fires on ships
The car and passenger ferry Scandinavian Star experienced a fire in April 1990, caused by arson in a laundry room. The fire resulted in 158 casualties and thirty people injured. The fire integrity of the ship did not meet requirements, for example, fire detection and alarm systems and fire doors were not working, passengers died after becoming trapped at deadend corridors, the signs indicating evacuation routes were not up to standard and safety training of the crew was non-existent.
This accident resulted in a major revision of procedures and fire safety standards on board passenger ships. Various training institutes are now training crews in firefighting techniques.
A fire erupting on board does not mean that the ship will founder. This happened in the past. Nowadays, a fire is frequently extinguished and the ship is left drifting until somebody picks it up and tows it into port.
In 2010, the IMO requirements “Safe Return to Port” (SRtP) were launched, which required a much higher level of survivability than was previously the case. Redundant systems and a “safe haven” for people on board are now required. In this case, the ship itself is regarded as a lifeboat.
More attention is paid to “mislabelling” of containers and the proper positioning of containers on board. Various systems are being developed for detecting and extinguishing fires in containers. Fire extinguishing systems have been developed for lithium-ion battery fires as well. There are also discussions about transporting electric vehicles on specially adapted ships in order to mitigate eventual battery fires. One company developing a new series of ships for electric cars, stated that its new ships will have far superior fire detection compared with previous ships and, crucially, dedicated spaces for electric cars.
Picture (top): PCC Felicity Ace burning (courtesy of the Portuguese Navy (Marinha Portuguesa)).
Also read: ‘Prevention measures crucial to tackling risk of battery fires in shipping’
- The Nordic Association of Marine Insurers, Annual Report 2021
- Allianz, Safety and Shipping Review 2021
- Lloyd’s List Intelligence, Maritime Safety 2012-2021, a decade of progress
- DNV, Managing the risks of Blackout. For passenger ship owners and operators.
- Onderzoeksraad voor de Veiligheid
- National Transportation Safety Board, USA
- Statens Haverikommission (Swedish Accident Investigation Authority)
- Statens Havarikommisjon (Accident Investigation Board Norway, AIBN)
- Transportation and Safety Board of Canada
- International Union of Marine Insurance