Surprise! Media is misreporting the source of a Dutch cargo ship fire

Surprise! Media is misreporting the source of a Dutch cargo ship fire

electrek — 2023-07-26

Maritime and Ports

Early on July 26 2023, the Fremantle Highway, a vehicle carrying cargo ship, caught fire in the North Sea, off the coast of Ameland in the Netherlands. The fire has killed one person on board and injured several more, though all 23 crew members have at this point been evacuated from the ship.

Currently, the fire is still burning and the cause of the fire is unknown, according to the Dutch Coast Guard, which is carrying out the firefighting operation. But media reports, seeming to all crib from the same misquote, would have you think otherwise.

The Fremantle Highway is a “roll-on/roll-off,” or “Ro-Ro,” ship, a vehicle carrier designed for cars to drive on and off of it in loading and unloading. It was carrying 2,832 gas-powered cars, complete with a large amount of volatile energy stored in their collective gas tanks (some is needed to drive on and off of the ship) and in the tank of the ship itself, and 25 electric cars, from Germany to Egypt.

Naturally, the media seems to have taken one statement from the Dutch Coast Guard and misinterpreted it, jumping to exactly the premature conclusion that you probably did when you saw this headline pop up.

An early article about the cargo ship fire quoted Lea Versteeg, a spokesperson for the Dutch Coast Guard, as having made this statement over the phone, "It’s carrying cars, 2,857, of which 25 are electrical cars, which made the fire even more difficult. It’s not easy to keep that kind of fire under control and even in such a vessel it’s not easy."

This quote seems reasonable. We’re not sure who made the phone call, but since it’s in the Associated Press article, we suspect they might be the first who got this statement directly from Versteeg’s mouth.

What the quote seems to mean is that in a ship full of vehicles, each of which is carrying their own at least partially full energy storage container (whether that be a gas tank or a battery), it’s going to be hard to put out a fire because there is a lot of fuel available for that fire. Further, given that there is a mix of fuels, it’s hard to pick a single tactic to put all of them out at once, because firefighting methods are different for different types of fires.

What the quote clearly doesn’t mean is that the Coast Guard is blaming this fire on an electric car.

And how do we know that? Well, we called them and asked them. And they told us that, no, they have not made a statement to that effect, because they don’t know the cause of the fire yet, and that this seems to be speculation in the media.

We also checked the Dutch Coast Guard’s liveblog about the firefighting efforts, and their Twitter page, and neither said anything about electric cars. In fact, the liveblog has now been updated to say “the cause of the fire is still unknown.” And it makes sense that the Coast Guard would not know yet what the source of the fire is, and it would be unprofessional of them to say so, given that the fire isn’t even contained yet.

But NOS, the Dutch public broadcaster, cites a “Coast Guard spokesperson” as saying that presumably the fire was started by an EV. But unlike AP, NOS does not name the spokesperson nor does it have a direct quote from said spokesperson. So we really don’t know whether NOS talked to a spokesperson, or is cribbing from the Versteeg quote above – and changing its meaning in the process.

And several other articles have run with this mysteriously unsourced quote, which conflicts with the Coast Guard’s actual statement, putting this nonexistent suspicion into their headlines.

Reuters echoed NOS’s statement in its original article on the fire, but in a more recent article, it has now walked that back, stating “the coastguard said on its website that the cause of the fire was unknown, but a coastguard spokesperson had earlier told Reuters it began near an electric car” (emphasis ours). And various more-ideological publications, especially those associated with climate denial, are leaning hard into claiming an EV is the cause as well.

So let’s take stock:

  • An official statement in writing says the cause is unknown.
  • There is nothing from officials in writing mentioning the speculation about electric cars.
  • We don’t have a direct quote, and we don’t have a name for the spokesman who supposedly said that EVs were “presumably” involved.
  • The misreported information seems like it could be a misinterpretation of a direct quote that we do know of.
  • At least one media organization has now walked back their misreporting.
  • It was confirmed to us over the phone that the Coast Guard has not come to a conclusion as to the cause and that this is all media speculation.

Given this information, we must conclude that this is being misreported.

This type of misreporting is common

This is unfortunately not the first time we’ve seen something like this happen. Just off the top of my head:

  • Back in the early days of EVs, there were several reports of original Fisker Karmas catching fire, which was blamed on their battery, but photos show that the fires started near the fender, where the battery isn’t (it’s arranged in a T-shape, with the crossbar in the rear of the car). Turns out, the large, cramped engine did not have a good enough cooling fan, and that’s what was causing the fires. The batteries were fine.
  • At one point, there were reports of a “charger” in a Smart car that caught fire in Florida – turns out, it was a gas Smart car, and the “charger” was a battery tender for the 12-volt lead acid battery.
  • More recently, we reported on an old diesel car that burned a parking structure, but since it was in Norway, everyone immediately blamed EVs.

One thing we do know is that cargo ship fires are not uncommon, with hundreds happening in 2022. We also know that another cargo ship carrying ~1,200 gas cars (and zero electric) caught fire earlier in July 2023 in New Jersey, killing two. And we know that gasoline is literally supposed to combust, that’s its entire purpose, and it does, commonly, since gas cars are more likely to catch fire than EVs are, with hundreds of thousands of gas car fires every year in the US, virtually none of which get reported.

And yet, you probably have a strong association in your subconscious between fires and electric cars.

This association is why events like the aforementioned reporting on the 1,200-car ship had to specifically mention that “there were no electric cars on board.” Because the last time a ship made headlines for burning, it was one that had a lot of electric cars on board (and notably also several gas-powered Lamborghini Aventadors, which have been recalled for fires). And despite burning ships being a not-uncommon event, this one made so many headlines precisely because of the nature of the electric cars on board.

That event also had several early reports laying blame on said electric cars, but that was also early speculation, by media, never by official authorities, and the cause of that fire is still unclear to this day. But the association remains.