Vehicle carrier catches fire, burns for over a week in Jacksonville

A vehicle carrier caught fire while moored at the Port of Jacksonville (Fla.) and continued to burn for more than a week, generating extreme heat and explosions that injured local firefighters.

The fire aboard the 600-foot Hoegh Xiamen started at about 1545 on June 4 while the ship was tied up at Blount Island in the St. Johns River. Authorities said the fire likely started on the seventh deck and continued to burn upward through the 11th and uppermost level.

All 21 crewmembers working on the Norway-flagged ship escaped safely, and there were no reports of pollution a week after the fire started. The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department reported the blaze under control early on June 7, but it continued to burn for another five days.

Eight Jacksonville firefighters were injured during an explosion on the ship on June 4, four of whom were transported to a burn unit in Gainesville, Fla. Fire Chief Keith Powers said in a June 5 news briefing that he remained concerned about the victims who suffered severe burns to their hands and ears. A ninth firefighter was injured during a separate phase of the response.

The U.S. Coast Guard has not determined the cause of the fire, and the service suggested making a determination would require a lengthy investigation.

Hoegh Xiamen arrived at Blount Island late on June 2 from Freeport, Texas, where it loaded about 800 mostly used cars, according to Jacksonville Port Authority Chief Executive Eric Green. The ship took on another 1,575 used cars in Jacksonville. The ship was scheduled to sail to Baltimore and then to West Africa to unload its cargo, Green said. Italian shipper Grimaldi Deep Sea operated the vessel under charter.

The fire started after loading finished and the ship prepared to depart Jacksonville, according to shipowner Hoegh Autoliners. Details on the crew’s firefighting response were not available.

Jacksonville firefighters boarded the vessel and closed dampers and baffles. Capt. Mark Vlaun, Coast Guard captain of the port, said the explosion that injured the eight firefighters likely occurred after a pressure buildup “that essentially off-gassed through the upper part of the ship.”

Drones with infrared cameras helped firefighters determine where to spray water to cool the hull, below, and maintain the integrity of the ship.

U.S. Coast Guard/Jacksonville Fire and Rescue

At least one other explosion occurred as the heat and flames reached tanks on upper levels containing combustible fluids and materials, he said.

In the days that followed, fireboats, tugboats and shoreside fire apparatus continually sprayed the hull to cool the ship. Firefighters dispensed 25,000 gallons of water a minute for much of the operation. Infrared images shared by Jacksonville fire officials showed the effort was successful in reducing temperatures where the water doused the ship.

The Coast Guard, local fire officials and contractors from Resolve Marine Group and Gallagher Marine assisted with the response. Authorities decided to isolate the ship at level six and defend that level and those below it from the heat and flames.

“Importantly the fire has gone up and not down,” Vlaun said during the June 5 news briefing. “Most of the machinery spaces and the liquid load, the fuel, are all in the lower portion of the ship. And those areas remain in the 90s and 100-degree range, which is about as successful as you can be in terms of marine firefighting.”

The upper levels of the ship, meanwhile, reached 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and beyond in some cases. “Basically from the seventh deck up … we believe the cars are essentially a total loss at this point,” Vlaun said. “Firefighters who egressed from the ship (on June 4) explained they weren’t even burning at that point, they were just melting.”

As of press time, the ship remained intact and there were no signs of sheening or pollution. Response teams placed containment boom around the hull as a precaution, Hoegh officials said in a prepared statement.

Thor Jorgen Guttormsen, CEO of Hoegh Autoliners, expressed gratitude to the firefighters injured during the response, as well as port officials and the Coast Guard.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the firefighters who sustained injuries during the initial response to the fire, and we wish them a speedy recovery,” Guttormsen said.

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