By Mike Wackett

More than 23 crew members have been evacuated, but four seafarers are unaccounted for, after a fire in the hold of the 15,262 TEU Maersk Honam could not be contained.

Maersk Line said the ship was “still on fire” on March 7, and the situation “critical”.

The vessel (pictured above on its maiden voyage) was on a loop of Maersk Line and MSC’s 2M Asia-West Mediterranean service carrying 7,860 containers. According to Maersk, the fire on the 2017-built vessel was first reported on March 6 in the Arabian Sea, with the ship en route from Singapore to Suez. The carrier said the crew had sent out a distress signal after firefighting efforts were unsuccessful. The Indian coastguard service swiftly responded and said that MRCC Mumbai coordinated the immediate rescue of 23 out of 27 crew through merchant vessels in the area.”

Soren Toft, Maersk’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “We received the news of Maersk Honam and the four missing crew members with the deepest regret and are now doing our upmost to continue ongoing search and rescue operations.” Maersk said the cause of the fire was currently unknown, but it is likely to have emanated from a container of misdeclared cargo.

Maersk Honam is the biggest containership so far to have been the subject of a serious fire, but the industry has suffered a number of such incidents, including 6,750 TEU MSC Flaminia which in July 2012 claimed the lives of three crew members.

And as containerships have almost trebled in size in the past 20 years, insurers have become increasingly concerned at the risk from rogue containers. Indeed, such is the limited transparency of the container industry that nobody, including shipping lines and the masters of vessels, knows for sure what has actually been loaded into the millions of boxes being transported around the world every year.

Moreover, speaking to The Loadstar recently, TT Club risk management director Peregrine Storrs-Fox said that beside the serious risk of the non-declaration of hazardous cargo, there was a secondary threat that had been identified. “Counterfeiting is adding further risk, with issues surrounding composition, declaration and packaging of cargo,” he said.

And of course, how to deal with a fire in a container buried deep in the hold of an ultra-large container vessel (ULCV) is a concern that has been voiced many times in the past few years by the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI). Noting that containerships “have changed quite drastically over the past few years”, IUMI has flagged up the increased difficulty of fighting fires on ULCVs. It said that as opposed to other shipping sectors, CO2 cannot be used to fight fires on container vessels as there is no direct access to the cargo. “Firefighting operations on container vessels are limited to allowing the containers to burn out in a controlled manner in such a way that the fire cannot spread further,” said IUMI. “This approach is still correct and reasonable, but in view of the rapid pace of development towards ever-larger ships, new technical solutions are also required.” said IUMI. The union has called for further dialogue with the IMO, classification societies, shipbuilders and shipping lines “to further improve firefighting capabilities onboard containerships”.

Reprinted courtesy of The Loadstar (