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Five presumed dead, 16 rescued after fire on Pacific vehicle carrier

Feb 27, 2019 01:20 PM
A Coast Guard air crew flies over Sincerity Ace as the vehicle carrier burns on Dec. 31 about 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. The plane dropped rescue supplies to the bulk carrier Genco Augustus, which can be seen in the background. In the foreground is the U.S.-flagged vehicle carrier Green Lake.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

A Coast Guard air crew flies over Sincerity Ace as the vehicle carrier burns on Dec. 31 about 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. The plane dropped rescue supplies to the bulk carrier Genco Augustus, which can be seen in the background. In the foreground is the U.S.-flagged vehicle carrier Green Lake.

Sixteen crewmembers were rescued but five are presumed dead after their loaded vehicle carrier caught fire in the Pacific Ocean and burned for days.

The 650-foot Sincerity Ace was underway from Yokohama, Japan, to Honolulu with 21 crew when the fire started late on Dec. 30. By 0100 on Dec. 31, it was out of control. At the time, the ship was roughly 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu.

Four crew left the vessel several hours before their shipmates, who continued fighting the fire for several more hours, U.S. Coast Guard Chief Sarah Muir said. Details about that initial departure were not available.

Good Samaritan ships picked up 16 survivors and also identified four people who were floating unresponsive in the rough seas. A fifth crewmember was never found.

The fire appeared to start on a lower-level deck on the Panama-flagged ship, but no other information has been made available about its cause. The Coast Guard is not investigating due to the ship’s location in international waters, its foreign flag, and the lack of U.S. sailors on board.‚Äč

Shoei Kisen Kaisha of Imabari, Japan, manages Sincerity Ace. The company said its crew and their families were in its thoughts and prayers. “Our company is working closely with our crewing department to ensure everyone is being properly cared for,” a prepared statement said.

Sincerity Ace left Yokohama after Christmas carrying 3,500 Nissan vehicles. The ship’s master initially reported the fire to Japanese authorities, who relayed the message and the ship’s location to the Coast Guard in Hawaii.

The Coast Guard’s Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu learned there was “a significant vessel fire” and that firefighting crews were losing the battle against the flames. The message also indicated the master planned to abandon ship.

The Coast Guard issued a SafetyNET broadcast to nearby ships. Five vessels diverted toward Sincerity Ace, including four ships enrolled in the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER). Coast Guard aircraft dropped life rafts to assist the burning ship’s crew, although it’s not clear if they were used.

Three of the four crewmembers who launched a lifeboat early in the fire response were among the victims. It’s not clear if all four ever made it inside the boat. Muir said one person was inside when the U.S.-flagged vehicle carrier Green Lake approached.

With response ships trying to hold position in 17-foot seas and 25-knot winds, Sincerity Ace’s 17 remaining crew climbed down into the water. There, crewmembers wearing life jackets reached for life rings tossed from nearby ships, Muir said. Others made it to gangways and Jacob’s ladders. Seven of the mariners found their way into a life raft.

“The life ring was one of the primary tools they used to overcome that enormous freeboard between the surface of the ocean and the accessible deck to get them on board the rescue vessels,” Muir said.

Green Lake rescued seven mariners, New Century 1 saved one, Venus Spirit saved another and Genco Augustus rescued the seven men in the life raft. The Panama-flagged New Century 1 and Liberia-flagged Venus Spirit are vehicle carriers; Genco Augustus is a Hong Kong-flagged bulk carrier.

All four are part of the AMVER program. A fifth ship, the Panama-flagged LNG carrier SM Eagle, also assisted in the search and rescue, along with Coast Guard and Navy aircraft. The operation ended Jan. 2.

The Coast Guard offered high praise for the AMVER vessels, noting that without their rapid response, the outcome could have been much worse.

“They are halfway between Japan and Hawaii and there is just nothing out there,” Muir said. “The assistance from these vessels was critical, and the fact that (Sincerity Ace) had these issues in a relatively well-trafficked area is very fortunate.”

The fire continued to burn aboard the unmanned vehicle carrier for at least five days. The 282-foot tugboat Koyo Maru from Tokyo-based Nippon Salvage reached Sincerity Ace on Jan. 7, and a tow was established at about 1300 on Jan. 8.

“There were no firefighting efforts that I am aware of,” said Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for Shoei Kisen Kaisha. “One can assume it naturally extinguished itself.”

At press time, Koyo Maru was towing the ship back to Asia. Its final destination for repairs had not been determined, Wilson said. The voyage was expected to last about two weeks.

A Nissan spokeswoman said the company had no information about the fate of the vehicles aboard.

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