Hell on Water

Container fires on ships are becoming increasingly common – and dangerous.

The deadly fire aboard the Maersk Honam (Indian Coast Guard)

Published Dec 10, 2019 8:43 PM by Charlie Bartlett

(Article originally published in May/June 2019 edition.)

In the early hours of the morning on May 24, an explosion was heard and a fire identified on the South Korean-flagged, 1,585-TEU KMTC Hong Kong as she sat quayside in Laem Chabang, Thailand. The fire spread throughout containers understood to be carrying noxious substances.

From across the river, a video was recorded and uploaded to YouTube showing a thick column of smoke becoming a sequence of plumes as devastating explosions occurred – apparently the result of tank containers carrying paraffin. Soon locals were reporting a burning sensation on their skin and breathing difficulties. A few hours later, 37 had been admitted to the hospital, poisoned or with fire or chemical burns. Some 143 were affected by chemicals in the smoke.

At the last update, the fire and explosions had encompassed 35 boxes, and 200 people were receiving medical treatment. Local news reports noted, as if in explanation, that the vessel had more than ten containers on board loaded with calcium hypochlorite.

Fires on container ships and the deaths associated with them are – as with various catastrophes in our modern age -- threatening to become so frequent as to appear mundane. Not all of them, thankfully, have resulted in loss of life, but many have.

Perhaps they are inevitable. Vessels are getting larger. It might be thought that there’s bound to be a container – one in thousands – the contents of which are dangerous but may have been misdeclared or not declared at all.

But with seafarer lives on the line and the sustainability of the maritime industry in general at stake, decisive action is required.

The Culprit

The culprit is hazardous cargoes, and by this what is almost always meant is one in particular: calcium hypochlorite or, to the rest of us, bleach. When loading these boxes, shipping lines place them on the outermost corners of the stack, ensuring that any blaze will be vented into the open air and, in theory, dispersed much more easily. It doesn’t always work. It’s never a surprise when those containers adjacent to a blazing box catch fire too.

But to place one at the top corner of the stack is to effectively halve the chances of this happening. However, thanks to their limited availability, these spaces carry a premium. Many shippers are unwilling to shoulder the extra cost and so, rather than declaring their cargo carries a shipment of calcium hypochlorite, they will lie, sending their boxes to the bottom or middle of the stack.

If a container catches fire here, it has the highest possible chance of starting a massive blaze. Fire needs fuel, and container lines have perfected the art of squeezing as much of it as possible into one place. The fire spreads to the neighboring containers, and temperatures in the stack rise to hellish levels and spread outwards.

Such blazes often go undetected in their early stages. But once started, they can resist the efforts of firefighters for days, write off entire ships and, most grievously by far, claim the lives of entire crews.

In late June, a high-powered meeting will be held between representatives of hull underwriters, P&I clubs and container lines, discussing what can be done about what is rapidly becoming an epidemic. For them, it’s make-or-break. “Representatives from more than 80 percent of world container capacity will be there,” said a source at one of the major P&I clubs. “That meeting will address how the rules on dangerous goods will apply on container ships.”

“Everybody is very animated on this topic,” the source added, “and it’s not just the claims committees within the P&I clubs -- it goes right up to the top, to the International Group of P&I Clubs. If it’s just a small claim the P&I clubs can pay it themselves. But if it’s a massive claim, such as a major pollution claim, then they club together, and it’s the International Group’s reinsurance that pays out.”

Indeed, the bill for the Maersk Honam fire in March, which killed five crewmen, is believed to have exceeded $100 million already, putting it at the international level, in a case that will take years to solve.

“We’re only talking a few hundred dollars per box, but non-declaration puts the whole ship at risk,” the P&I source continued. “There’s a huge incentive to get to grips with this. At the moment the pressure is on carriers to exercise better due diligence with regard to the contents of containers. However, the world’s logistics chain is now so efficient that checking boxes in any number is not physically possible without causing huge disruption.”

A Costly Con: Non-Declaration and Misdeclaration

Some shipping lines have responded with an ultimatum: They will simply refuse to carry calcium hypochlorite. But one need only glance at the history of Prohibition to see how that will turn out. It will do nothing to discourage those already lying about the contents of their boxes from continuing to do so, argued Standard P&I Club’s Loss Prevention Director, Yves Vandenborn, at a recent conference.

“We see a lot of the major container lines simply refusing to carry it – that doesn’t help,” he said. “Industries need calcium hypochlorite, so by banning it more shippers will simply mis-declare it and try and get it on board anyway. In fact, if you do declare calcium hypochlorite it is a perfectly safe cargo to carry. The problem comes when you don’t know you are carrying it.”

Another complicating factor is alliances and consortiums. If a shipowner has refused to carry hazardous cargo but his consortium partner hasn’t, he might well end up carrying that cargo anyway. The industry has also seen situations where consortium members have suffered because their partners are less diligent about verifying container contents.

It should be noted that there is much more than enough pressure on ship crews already without also requiring them to be firefighters. Yet if a fire is detected, that is precisely what they must become.

The terrifying proposition to combat a box fire low down in the container stack involves wading through smoke – which, as seen in the KMTC Hong Kong case, could very likely be toxic – to approach a container that, depending on its contents, might explode at any moment. Then the crew must drill, tap or otherwise puncture a hole in its white-hot surface in order to ram a water-mist nozzle into it.

On land, as horrifying as the incident at Laem Chabang was, there is at least somewhere for crew members and others to escape to and almost always a possibility of medical treatment. But at sea the situation is more dire by far. There will be little prospect of help if a vessel is in a remote location. Firefighting vessels are small and generally limited to coastal waters. The only options are to fight the blaze raging across the ship or abandon it.

Early Detection

A fire being detected in its early stages is relatively rare. However, a Norwegian company called ScanReach might offer a solution. Its new technology, called In:Sense, features a radio signal that can travel through steel with unique efficacy. A low-cost, temperature-sensor array throughout the vessel’s cargo area, requiring no cabling – an arrangement unique to ScanReach – would give an up-to-the-minute readout of hold temperatures, ensuring that any fire could at least be identified and attacked in its nascent phase.

ScanReach’s Chief Business Development Officer, Jacob Grieg Eide, notes that, thanks to the high cost of cabling, an equivalent network would hitherto have been prohibitively expensive and simply wouldn’t be considered. It would most likely be severed in a fire anyway.

“Expensive and complicated cable systems are now obsolete,” he says. “Our onboard wireless meshed network enables secure connectivity throughout the steel structure of ships and offshore units, and our system has already been successfully tried and tested through our cooperation with North Sea Shipping. Last April we installed a system with a meshed network of more than 100 microsensors and 120 personnel tags throughout the North Sea Giant, one of the world’s most complex subsea construction vessels. The results have been great.”

ScanReach’s system has various applications and was originally conceived to keep track of crew and passengers in the event of an evacuation. “The reaction of marine insurance experts to this technology has been overwhelming,” he says. “Once DNV GL has signed off on the technology in its generic form, we will proceed with marketing In:Sense without delay. It is relatively cheap and takes just hours to install. This could be carried out during a port call as a ship lay alongside.” – MarEx

U.K.-based Charlie Bartlett is a frequent contributor.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.