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Fire on containership leads to long-distance tow in North Atlantic

Feb 27, 2019 12:59 PM
Smoke rises from Yantian Express on Jan. 15, nearly two weeks after fire broke out in a container on the foredeck as the ship headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ship operator Hapag-Lloyd said the fire was “largely contained and under control” on Jan. 9.

Cameron Brunick photo

Smoke rises from Yantian Express on Jan. 15, nearly two weeks after fire broke out in a container on the foredeck as the ship headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ship operator Hapag-Lloyd said the fire was “largely contained and under control” on Jan. 9.

Containerized cargo caught fire aboard a ship sailing in a remote part of the North Atlantic, spurring a complex rescue and salvage operation that remained a work in progress more than two weeks later.

The 1,053-foot Yantian Express, en route to Halifax, Nova Scotia, caught fire early on Jan. 3 as it sailed about 650 nautical miles from Canada’s eastern coast. The fire started on the foredeck in a single container, then spread to other containers. The cause has not been released.

No injuries were reported among the 23 crewmembers. Seventeen non-essential crew set sail for Halifax on Jan. 10 aboard a sister ship, Dalian Express, arriving on Jan. 14. Five other crew who initially evacuated later returned to the 7,510-TEU ship to assist with firefighting and salvage, according to Tim Seifert, a spokesman for ship operator Hapag-Lloyd.

The Hamburg, Germany-based company said the fire was “largely contained and under control” on Jan. 9. Burning cargo still smoldered six days later, however, when a merchant vessel carrying mariner Cameron Brunick passed within three nautical miles.

“After we passed her, we were downwind and were able to smell the acrid whiff of the fires still burning/smoldering aboard her,” Brunick said in an email to Professional Mariner. He is serving aboard a ship in the North Atlantic as part of his training at the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

“She was barely moving, only about 1 to 2 knots,” he continued, adding that per captain’s orders he could not identify his ship. “As we approached and after we passed her, we continued to see smoke coming out from her bow area.”

The U.S. Coast Guard learned about the fire at 0500 on Jan. 3 but did not deploy any assets. As of Jan. 17, it wasn’t clear if the service would launch an investigation, according to Josh Canup, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Mid-Atlantic sector.​

Yantian Express set sail from Colombo, Sri Lanka, for Halifax through the Suez Canal on Hapag-Lloyd’s East Coast Loop 5 service. Crew aboard the 17-year-old cargo ship mobilized firefighting teams immediately after the blaze was discovered, the company said in a Jan. 4 statement. Firefighting efforts were cut short not long afterward due to “deteriorating weather conditions” that hampered the response for several days.

The Dutch-flagged general cargo ship Happy Ranger diverted roughly 20 nm to meet Yantian Express. The ship, enrolled in the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER), remained nearby until the 232-foot anchor-handling tug Smit Nicobar arrived on Jan. 4.

The Belgian-flagged Smit Nicobar provided “limited firefighting assistance” to Yantian Express, Canup said. The containership’s crew abandoned the burning vessel for Smit Nicobar on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 after the flames gained intensity. The 311-foot offshore tug Maersk Mobiliser arrived on Jan. 7.

Five vital crew from Yantian Express, including its captain, returned to the ship on Jan. 9. The fire was reportedly contained and under control the same day, according to a company statement. It was not clear at press time if the fire had been fully extinguished.

The Canada-flagged Maersk Mobiliser brought Yantian Express under tow on or about Jan. 9 and began towing it toward Canada, according to Hapag-Lloyd. It’s not clear how far they made it. Seven days later, on Jan. 16, Seifert said Yantian Express was 800 nm from Canada and nearly 1,000 nm from Halifax with Smit Nicobar and Maersk Mobiliser standing by.

Meanwhile, Hapag-Lloyd dispatched two additional tugboats, the 221-foot Belgian-flagged Union Sovereign and the 337-foot Canada-flagged Horizon Star, to assist with the towing operation. Union Sovereign carried several salvage experts who went to work upon reaching ship on Jan. 15.

Seifert said the ship likely would be towed to Halifax. At press time there was no indication when they might arrive. Brunick said Yantian Express did not appear to be under tow when his ship passed on Jan. 15.

Details on the salvage, including the strategy for towing the massive ship, were not available. Smit International, the owner of Smit Nicobar, did not respond to a message seeking comment, and Hapag-Lloyd did not respond to a list of questions about the ongoing incident.

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