Fire on “Shadow” Tanker off Malaysia is Extinguished, Search Continues
The fire aboard the Aframax crude oil tanker Pablo has been extinguished but the Malaysian authorities are saying it remained too dangerous today to board the vessel to begin their investigation and search for three missing crewmembers. At the same time, investigations are highlighting the vessel's operation in the shadows. Lloyd's List is reporting the vessel had four different names, flags, and registered owners in the past four years. The Equasis database shows seven names and owners since 2018, moving between the flags of Cameroon, Cook Islands, Tanzania, and finally Gabon as of April this year.
During a press briefing in Malaysia, the Russian captain of the vessel described the situation saying that he had discovered a fire amidship early afternoon on Monday. The initial discovery of smoke was followed by one or more loud explosions which he said shook the vessel, broke the windows, and rendered most of the communications systems inoperable.
“The fire on the upper deck destroyed our aerial, none of the communication equipment was functioning,” the captain told NST TV in Malaysia. “I had to use the walkie talkie …I finally got in touch with our engineer via the walkie talkie but by then all our safety boats were destroyed.”
The captain said the desperate crew had gone into the water in their life jackets and luckily two ships were in the immediate area to assist with the rescue. He said in the confusion with the crew going in all directions it had been impossible for him to get a head count. He said the fire was also being spread by windy conditions.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) initially reported that 23 crewmembers had been rescued but later revised the count to 25 with three individuals missing. Two are deck fitters and the third is the ship’s personnel officer. The two deck crew are Indian nationals and the officer is from Ukraine. Four crewmembers suffered serious injuries to their hands, legs, and body and were being treated in a hospital.
The MMEA reports that it widened the search area to 71 nautical miles and has dived the search area into four zones. An aircraft and a total of nine vessels are searching involving 136 personnel. The area around the burnt-out tanker has been condoned off but they believe there is no immediate danger to nearby vessels and report that there has been no oil leak detected.
Officials said at least 50 percent of the vessel midship has been destroyed. Pictures show the fuel tanks ripped apart and sections of the deck hanging off the side of the vessel. Experts are saying that the tanks likely had a buildup of fumes and had not been vented causing multiple explosions.
A hazardous materials team is scheduled to board the vessel on Wednesday. The captain is suggesting that the three crewmembers might be locked in airtight rooms and still trapped aboard the vessel. The team will search the ship and look for the cause of the fire.
Filmed from the bridge of the VLCC supertanker ENOLA (9251951) some 1.7 nautical miles away, here are the immediate few seconds following the explosion of the Aframax tanker PABLO (9133587) in Riau archipelago. You can see very large parts of her deck flying off to the sides. pic.twitter.com/k4UIjkriCs— TankerTrackers.com, Inc. (@TankerTrackers) May 2, 2023
Experts are citing the accident as proof of the danger of the shadow fleet of tankers moving around the world. No insurance has been confirmed for the vessel with the owners remaining a mystery and confusion over which classification society was responsible for the ship.
Claire Jungman, Chief of Staff for the watchdog group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) tweeted saying the organization has been tracking the Pablo for many years. “Pablo has been suspected of transporting Iranian oil on at least 10 different occasions since sanctions were re-imposed in 2019. This vessel was operating with no known classification or insurance.”
Analysts are reporting that the Pablo after changing its identity in 2022 loaded Iranian oil which was delivered to China in January 2023. The captain told reporters the vessel had been bound for Singapore and was going to load an oil cargo for transport. It is unclear where the cargo would have been coming from or if they were preparing for a ship-to-ship transfer common in the efforts to avoid the sanctions on Iranian oil. TankerTrackers.com is speculating that the Pablo was being positioned to receive a shipment of Iranian oil from a nearby VLCC.