Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

fire aboard a container ship in Hamburg, Germany
Cargo boxes regularly tumble off ship decks into the deep blue, their contents defiling waters and beaches for kilometers in all directions. Ship fires are a much less common, though more damaging maritime disaster. Photo by dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

Fire at Sea

More than just bad luck is behind increasingly frequent and lethal container ship fires.

Authored by

by Paul Hockenos

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Last year’s horrific inferno on the Maersk Honam was not the first nor even the most recent in a spate of fierce blazes to tear through supersized container ships over the past decade. But it was by far the most lethal.

On March 6, 2018, the Maersk Honam was in the Arabian Sea, on its way to the Mediterranean by way of the Suez Canal. According to the Indian coast guard, the ship sent out a distress signal reporting an explosion and fire. Flames engulfed the main deck’s forward holds, ripped through stacks of cargo, and were heading toward the bridge. The conflagration was so mammoth, with flames shooting 25 meters into the air, that the blaze could be clearly identified on satellite images. The coast guard and nearby ships rushed to the Maersk Honam’s rescue, bringing 23 of the 27-person crew to safety. But four crew members perished in the flames, and a fifth died later. The fire aboard the Maersk Honam continued to smolder into April.

Between 2007 and 2016, fire was the third most common cause of total ship loss, behind ships sinking, and being wrecked or stranded. The rash of fierce fires has alarmed the shipping industry, prompting them to devise new ways to protect cargoes and crews.

While there is not yet an official explanation for the Maersk Honam blaze since the investigation is ongoing, this calamity and others—including the recent burning of the 320-meter Yantian Express, 1,900 kilometers from Halifax, Nova Scotia—have the shipping sector searching for answers. What is causing the fires, and why do they seem to be increasing in frequency and devastation?

“The simple fact is that you’ve got ever-larger ships with ever-greater volumes of cargo,” says Sean Dalton, chair of the cargo committee of the International Union of Marine Insurance, which represents international marine insurers. Since 2006, the cargo-carrying capacity of the largest ships has doubled. The heftiest ships can pack 11,000 six-meter-long containers weighing a total of 253 million tonnes. If these cargo containers were instead loaded onto a train, it would stretch for 71 kilometers. Yet they can legally operate with a bare-bones crew: just 13 people and a sophisticated computer system.

Such small crews are poorly equipped to combat large fires, says Dalton. “If a fire breaks out, crews can’t usually get to it quickly and things escalate.” The crew’s only recourse is to call for help, which at best brings tugboats from the nearest port—some of which are outfitted to fight fires. But the fires can rage for days, says Dalton.

One factor contributing to the growing strength and frequency of fires, says Dalton, is the improper shipping of hazardous materials, including mislabeled cargo. Cargo with dangerous content—flammable liquids and solids, oxidizing substances, and toxic and infectious matter—costs more to transport since it must be packed and handled differently. Even seemingly innocuous freight, such as charcoal for grilling and swimming pool cleaning supplies, has been among the fuel in recent blazes. Allianz, a German insurance company, calculates that 30 percent of cargo containers packed with dangerous goods are inaccurately labeled.

The severity of recent blazes has made some shipping lines shy away from carrying particular kinds of hazardous goods. But “when a shipping line bans a particular cargo because of the cargo’s history, shippers may mis-declare the cargo just to get it on board,” says Ian Lennard, of the nonprofit National Cargo Bureau (NCB), a marine surveying organization that assists the US Coast Guard.

In this way, dangerous materials make their way aboard illegally, and as a result are most likely to be stowed improperly—such as near other flammable cargo, or in vulnerable sections of the vessel.

Since it’s time-consuming to inspect packed freight, only a fraction is ever checked. By law, shipping lines must know what they are transporting, but the onus of legal responsibility is on the shippers to correctly declare what they’re paying to have transported, says Lennard: “The shipping lines rely on the shippers’ declaration.”

About 10 million containers are shipped annually from the United States, but last year the NCB checked only 32,000, Lennard says. “There’s no easy fix.”

“It costs a lot to check cargo piece by piece. It slows commerce,” he adds.

Some ship owners are beefing up safety measures on different levels, though there is no organized push to stamp out the underlying problems. Natasha Brown, in media relations for the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for overseeing shipping, says the agency has to wait for complete reports on the recent fires before it can make any recommendations.

But as a result of the 2018 Maersk Honam disaster, Maersk is having NCB carry out random container checks in North America, Lennard says, in order to determine whether shippers have inadequately packed, secured, or identified cargo. And on Maersk’s vessels, dangerous cargo may no longer be situated adjacent to the engine rooms or the crew’s quarters.

In addition to the human and economic costs of maritime fires, these disasters also have grave environmental repercussions. In the past, ship owners simply beached the burned-out hulks or sent them to Africa or Asia where locals scrapped them at rock-bottom prices. Today, companies like Maersk say they take pains to clean up the usually highly toxic vessels.

The Swedish ship services company Nord, for instance, won an environmental award for cleaning up the MSC Flaminia, which, at the time it caught fire in 2012, was one of the world’s largest container ships. Nord had to safely deal with 8,000 tonnes of scrap, 350 tonnes of hazardous waste, and 30,000 tonnes of water contaminated by firefighting chemicals.

Shipping lines are also making efforts to repair, restore, and rebuild torched ships, rather than dismantle them. The MSC Flaminia and the Maersk Honam are now spruced up and back in business, shipping freight on the high seas, as will be a refurbished Yantian Express likely later this month.

In light of the propensity of fires and mislabeled cargo, Nord has called the business of post-blaze cleanup “a new and promising market.” Until stricter regulations appropriate for today’s jumbo ships go into force—rules that hold both shippers and shipping lines accountable for firefighting and the safety of cargo—Nord’s projection is probably on the mark.