Mercedes vehicles aboard cargo ship ablaze off Dutch coast

Mercedes vehicles aboard cargo ship ablaze off Dutch coast

Automotive News Europe — 2023-07-26

Maritime and Ports

A fire blazed on a ship off the Dutch coast with nearly 3,000 vehicles on board on Thursday 27 July 2023, killing one member of the crew and injuring several others.

The fire began on Tuesday 25 July 2023 night, on the Panama-registered Fremantle Highway, which was en route from Germany to Egypt, forcing several crew members to jump overboard.

The Indian Embassy in the Netherlands said in a social media post the fire had "resulted in the death of an Indian seafarer and injuries to the crew", and that it was in touch with family of the deceased.

Japan's Shoei Kisen, which owns the ship, said the entire crew was Indian.

All 23 people on board, including several injured crew and the person who died, were removed from the ship by helicopters and lifeboats, the Dutch coastguard said.

Rescue ships sprayed water onto the burning boat to cool it down, but using too much water risked causing the ship to sink, the Dutch coastguard said. A salvage vessel was hooked on to stop it from drifting into shipping lanes.

About 350 of the vehicles on board were Mercedes-Benz cars, the company said.

It was not immediately clear which automakers other than Mercedes had their vehicles on board. Ford and Nissan did not have any vehicles on the vessel, company spokespeople said, and representatives from Stellantis, Toyota and Renault said it’s unlikely they had cargo onboard. 

A Volkswagen spokesperson said the company was actively investigating the matter but was unable to provide further information. General Motors and BMW were not immediately able to provide information. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. 

The fire might last for several days, Dutch news agency ANP reported, citing the coastguard. Smoke continued to billow from the vessel near the northern Dutch island of Ameland.

"The fire is most definitely still not controlled. It's a very hard fire to extinguish, possibly because of the cargo the ship was transporting," said Edwin Versteeg, a spokesperson for the Dutch Department of Waterways and Public Works.

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. Roughly 25 out of 2,857 vehicles on the ship were electric.

The International Maritime Organisation, which sets out regulation for safety at sea, plans to evaluate new measures for ships transporting EVs next year in light of the growing number of fires on cargo ships, a spokesperson said.

"Electric cars burn just as much as combustion engine cars. When batteries overheat and a so-called 'thermal runaway' occurs, then it gets dangerous," said Uwe-Peter Schieder, master mariner and representative of the German Insurance Association. "A chemical reaction in the battery produces gases which inflate the battery."

New rules under consideration could take years to implement, but may include specifications on the types of water extinguishers available on boats and limitations on the amount a battery can be charged, which impacts flammability.

The coastguard said the Fremantle, which had departed from the German port of Bremerhaven, had been towed out of shipping lanes and could sink. It was 27 km (17 miles) north of the Dutch island of Ameland when the fire started.

The fire spread so quickly that seven crew members jumped overboard, said Willard Molenaar of the Royal Dutch Rescue Company (KNRM), which was among the first at the scene.

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.

"There was lot of smoke and the fire spread quickly, much faster than expected," he said. "The people on board had to get off quickly ... We fished them out of the water."

A helicopter airlifted the remaining people from the 23-member crew off the burning ship. The injured were being treated for breathing problems, burns, and broken bones, local Dutch authorities said.

Coastguard spokesperson Edwin Granneman said salvage experts were trying to work out the next steps for the burning ship.

Shoei Kisen, the Japanese ship leasing company that manages the Fremantle, said it was working with the Dutch authorities to extinguish the fire.

The 10-year-old ship, measuring about 200 meters (656 feet) in length, can carry as many as 4,000 cars, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The coast guard couldn’t confirm whether there was a fuel leak from the ship, though authorities took some precautionary measures to prevent one, the spokesperson said.

The ship was navigating near the Wadden Sea UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world. Such environments are highly sensitive and could be damaged should an oil spill occur.  

A temporary flight ban was imposed above the area where the ship is on fire.

Car carrier fires

The incident was the latest of several fires in recent times on car carriers.

Earlier in July 2023, two New Jersey firefighters were killed and five injured battling a blaze on a cargo ship carrying hundreds of vehicles.

A fire destroyed thousands of luxury cars on the Felicity Ace, which sank off the coast of Portugal's Azores islands in March 2022.