By Tom Barlow-Brown
Emergency services have been fighting a blaze onboard a ro-ro cargo ship off the coast of the Netherlands. The fire has resulted in the death of one crewman and left several others injured. The fire is the fourth major incident since 2021 to occur on a car carrying vessel, and the second in July.
The Fremantle Highway became engulfed in flames when the vessel was sailing 17 miles north of the Dutch island of Ameland, with 23 crew onboard. The vessel was carrying a cargo of 2,857 cars, including 25 electric models, from Germany to Egypt. A spokesman for the Dutch coastguard has stated that they believe one of the electric cars carried as cargo was the source of the fire.
Emergency services were alerted around midnight on 26 July. The ship had departed from Bremerhaven on 25 July and the fire erupted on the cargo deck around 21.30 that evening, before quickly spreading to other parts of the vessel. A total of 23 crew have been rescued some of which had to jump from the ship to save themselves. 16 people are currently being treated in hospital for smoke inhalation.
The blaze on the Fremantle Highway will no doubt once again raise questions over the transport of electric vehicles by sea. According to a recent report by Allianz the “prevalence of lithium-ion batteries poses a growing risk for both container shipping and car carrier vessels.” The main hazards of carrying such cargo are fire, explosion and ‘thermal runaway,’ a self-heating fire that can cause an explosive reaction.
In 2022 fires were the second largest cause of loss of vessels, amounting to 21% of the total. In the past five years 64 vessels have been lost to fire. In 2021 the Grimaldi Deep Sea Hoegh Xianen car carrier caught fire in Jacksonville, Florida. The vessel was carrying 2,420 used cars with a total value of $40mil. An investigation by the NTSB found that a failure to properly disconnect and secure the batteries of the vehicles onboard was the cause.
Earlier this month the car carrier Grande Costa d’Avorio, also operated by Grimaldi Deep Sea, caught fire and burned for six days in the Port of Newark, New Jersey. This incident led to the deaths of two Newark firefighters and the partial closure of the port. The vessel was loaded with used cars bound for West Africa; however local emergency services have stated that no electric vehicles were onboard.
According to Henrik Meyer, senior quality manager, ports, terminals & stevedoring at Wallenius Wilhelmsen, “controlling li-ion battery fires are almost impossible, once the fire catches on to nearby vehicles their frames melt and the work to extinguish is extremely challenging,”.
The 199m Fremantle Highway is owned by Higaki Sangyo Kaisha, Ltd. It was built in 2013 by Imabari Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. It has a total gross tonnage of 59,525.
Update (15.00, 28/07/2023):
K Line, who chartered the Fremantle Highway, have since released a statement and the number of electric vehicles on board the vessel is now thought to be much higher than previously thought. According to a Tokyo-based spokesperson for K Line the vessel was carrying 3,783 vehicles including 498 battery electric vehicles.
The vessel is still burning and is currently located close to the Wadden Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage site and area of ecological importance.