Freemantle Highway fire

Fremantle Highway fire rages on near UNESCO heritage site

A fire that erupted on Tuesday aboard Fremantle Highway, a pure car and truck carrier, continues burning, according to the latest update from the Dutch Coast Guard, which has been responding to the incident ever since.

Image credit: Kustwacht-nl/Dutch Coast Guard

The fire was reported to the coast guard on Tuesday evening, July 25, shortly before midnight, as the car carrier, loaded with nearly 3,000 vehicles, was sailing some 27 kilometers north of Ameland, an island off the northern Dutch coast.

The crew attempted to extinguish the fire themselves but were unsuccessful. The fire continued to spread, prompting an evacuation. 

Following the incident, several maritime units and the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) were dispatched to the site. Two coast guard helicopters flew to Rotterdam to transport the firefighting team to the vessel in question, and once at the site helped to evacuate the affected crew.

All 23 crew members have been taken off the PCTC, chartered by Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (K Line). Some crew members jumped into the water and were rescued by the lifeboats of KNRM and Rederij Noordgat. The coast guard helicopter rescued the remaining crew members from the vessel.

Regrettably, one crew member has been reported deceased. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain unknown to the coast guard. Multiple crew members sustained injuries. The survivors were taken to Lauwersoog and Eelde Airport, where they received medical care from paramedics.

“We are cooperating with the local authorities, rescuers, and Wallem Shipmanagement Ltd., a ship management company, to extinguish the fire, but the situation is extremely difficult. We will continue to do our utmost to extinguish the fire and work to resolve the situation as soon as possible,” Shoei Kisen, owner of the 2013-built ship, said on Wednesday.

The company added that there was no information on oil pollution from the stricken car carrier so far.

Rijkswaterstaat has dispatched the pollution control vessel MS Arca to the site as a measure of precaution in order to be able to address any potential leaks promptly.

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The tugboat Hunter has been attached to the vessel to keep the ship in place, and Fremantle Highway has been moved out of the shipping lanes. However, it was informed that the towline could not be used for towing of the vessel. In addition, Fairplay 30 tugboat has been dispatched to cool the sides of the ship.

The coast guard said that the fire on board the Fremantle Highway cannot yet be extinguished with the tugboats’ extinguishing systems. As explained, pouring too much water onto the vessel could cause stability problems due to water in the ship and pose the risk of sinking. In addition, it is not yet possible to put people on board the car carrier.

The latest reports said that the vessel was stable, but could not be towed until the fire is extinguished, which may take a longer period of time.

Media reports were quick to pin the cause of the fire on the electric cars the ship was transporting, however, the coast guard reiterated on several occasions that the cause of the fire was yet to be determined.

Electric cars pose fire risks during transportation on ships due to the potential for thermal runaway in their lithium-ion batteries. Damage or exposure to extreme temperatures can lead to battery fires or explosions.

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Several parties, including the shipowner Shoei Kisen, management firm Wallem Ship Management, salvage companies and Rijkswaterstaat are working on an action plan.

It has been reported that Dutch salvage companies Smit and Multraship have been appointed as salvors of the stricken vessel.

Ameland is one of the northern Wadden Islands, which have been recognized and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Situated in the Wadden Sea, a tidal mudflat area between the North Sea coasts of the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, these islands have been acknowledged for their exceptional ecological significance and outstanding universal value.

As such, a potential oil spill from the fire-stricken car carrier poses a massive environmental risk as the sinking of the ship could not be ruled out.

The car carrier was en route from Germany to Singapore when the fire broke out.