By Charlotte Van Campenhout and Rishabh Jaiswal
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A fire blazed on a ship off the Dutch coast with nearly 3,000 vehicles on board on Wednesday, killing one member of the crew and injuring several others, the coastguard said.
The fire began on Tuesday night on the 199-metre Panama-registered Fremantle Highway, which was en route from Germany to Egypt, forcing several crew members to jump overboard. Dutch broadcaster NOS said all the crew were Indian.
Rescue ships sprayed water onto the burning boat to cool it down, but using too much water risked its sinking, the Dutch coastguard said. A salvage vessel was hooked on to stop it drifting.
The fire might last for several days, Dutch news agency ANP reported, citing the coastguard. Smoke continued to billow from the vessel near the northern Dutch island of Ameland.
“The fire is most definitely still not controlled. It’s a very hard fire to extinguish, possibly because of the cargo the ship was transporting,” said Edwin Versteeg, a spokesperson for the Dutch Department of Waterways and Public Works.
The coastguard said on its website that the cause of the fire was unknown, but a coastguard spokesperson had earlier told Reuters it began near an electric car. Roughly 25 out 2,857 vehicles on the ship were electric.
The International Maritime Organisation, which sets out regulation for safety at sea, plans to evaluate new measures for ships transporting electric vehicles next year in light of the growing number of fires on cargo ships, a spokesperson said.
“Electric cars burn just as much as combustion engine cars. When batteries overheat and a so-called ‘thermal runaway’ occurs, then it gets dangerous,” said Uwe-Peter Schieder, master mariner and representative of the German Insurance Association.
“A chemical reaction in the battery produces gases which inflate the battery.”
New rules under consideration could take years to implement, but may include specifications on the types of water extinguishers available on boats and limitations on the amount a battery can be charged, which impacts flammability.
Around 350 of the vehicles on board were Mercedes-Benz cars, the company said.
The coastguard said the Fremantle, which had departed from the port of Bremerhaven, had been towed out of shipping lanes. It was 27 km (17 miles) north of Ameland when the fire started.
It spread so quickly that seven crew members jumped overboard, said Willard Molenaar of the Royal Dutch Rescue Company (KNRM), who was among the first at the scene.
Molenaar told NOS some people were injured jumping into the water, while one crew member had died in the flames.
“There was lot of smoke and the fire spread quickly, much faster than expected,” he said. “The people on board had to get off quickly … We fished them out of the water.”
A helicopter airlifted the remaining people from the 23-strong crew off the burning ship. The injured were being treated for breathing problems, burns, and broken bones, local Dutch authorities said.
Coastguard spokesperson Edwin Granneman said salvage experts were trying to work out the next steps for the burning boat.
Shoei Kisen, the Japanese ship leasing company that manages the Fremantle, said it was working with the Dutch authorities to extinguish the fire.
The incident was the latest of several fires in recent times on car carriers.
Earlier this month, two New Jersey firefighters were killed and five injured battling a blaze on a cargo ship carrying hundreds of vehicles. There were no electric cars on that vessel the operator said.
A fire destroyed thousands of luxury cars, some electric with lithium-ion batteries, on a ship off the coast of Portugal’s Azores islands in February last year.