German accident investigators have drawn a link between fires on two ultra-large containerships in the Elbe estuary and the Red Sea.
Both incidents involve containers loaded with charcoal, a cargo that is not categorised under international guidelines as hazardous when being shipped. In November 2015, a fire was detected and extinguished on the 12,400-teu MSC Katrina (built 2012) as it sailed up the Elbe in northwest Germany. In February, a fire occurred on the 13,000-teu Ludwigshafen Express (built 2014) as it sailed in the Red Sea. An investigation by Germany’s Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation (BSU) found that both fires involved charcoal cargoes from the same Indonesian exporter. The BSU has not named the shipper in a preliminary report into the casualties released this week. In the case of the MSC Katrina, a firefighting unit was dispatched from Cuxhaven. Firefighters located the source of the fire in a 40-foot container loaded with charcoal in level four of the boxship. The fire was tackled by flooding the container with water. In the other incident, a blaze on the Ludwigshafen Express was spotted on a container on the upper deck of cargo hold number nine. It was also successfully tackled by flooding the container. When the ship arrived in Le Havre in northwest France, another burning container — a part of the same assignment of charcoal from Indonesia — was discovered. German jurisdiction The BSU is investigating the Ludwigshafen Express fire because the ship is registered in Germany. It is also probing the Katrina incident because the vessel, although flagged in Panama, was sailing in German waters and so came under the BSU’s jurisdiction. Normally the two accidents would be investigated separately but because they both involve the same cargo assigned from the same shipper — and the fires were similar in nature — the BSU decided to analyse them in the one report.
As the BSU is looking at the two accidents together, it is taking longer than the 12-month limit set by international regulations to complete the report. It said: “Particularly because of the similarity of the cases, both marine casualties will be summarised in the final investigation report.” One critical point of interest for investigators will be how the cargo self-ignited. Under the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code, charcoal is not listed as a dangerous cargo that is prone to self-ignite. “Due to the discrepancy between the test result and the actual breakout of the fire, the BSU carried out further investigations and consulted an expert,” the BSU said. Another issue will be tackling fires on ultra-large containerships. There had been concerns that firefighting could be difficult on the latest generation of boxships but the two fires under investigation seem to have been handled successfully.