Earlier this month, an ultra-large containership belonging to shipping giant Maersk suffered what is being described as a ‘serious fire’ in one of its cargo holds while en-route from Singapore towards Suez, Egypt. Of the 27 seafarers aboard the Maersk Honam, three have died and one is missing as of this publication date.

This recent fire reignites longstanding industry concerns over the severity of fires on these large container ships, particularly since the Maersk Honam is relatively new. It was built in 2017 at Hyundai Heavy Industries shipyard in South Korea, is valued at $122 million, and has a nominal capacity of 15,262 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit).

According to an article published in Seatrade Maritime News, numerous insurers have issued warnings over the challenges of containership fires over recent years. “With temperatures reaching in excess of 500 degrees centigrade inside boxes, extinguishing the blaze is both extremely difficult and dangerous, and the fire can easily spread to other containers and the ship as a whole,” cites the article.

The Maersk Honam tragedy is similar to a fire aboard the MSC Flaminia in the Atlantic in July 2012 that claimed the lives of three crewmembers – two confirmed dead, and one missing. The insurance costs for both the vessel and cargo can be huge and far out of proportion of the number of claims caused by fire, notes Seatrade Maritime News. In fact, just 0.76% of cargo claims are due to fire, yet in terms of total costs of claims fire relates to some 28%. The Maersk Honam had 7,860 containers, equaling 12,416 TEU, on board at the time of the fire.

On the Heels of the Fire

According to Lloyd’s Loading List, Maersk has declared general average (GA) for the stricken Maersk Honam containership, with the British International Freight Association (BIFA) stating the insurance industry is bracing for hundreds of millions of dollars in claims from the fire. The U.K. trade body also confirmed that cargo owners have been advised of Maersk’s decision to declare GA.

In addition, BIFA noted that based on the evidence of images from the Indian coastguard, hundreds of containers in the fore section of the containership would seem to be a total loss, but boxes stowed behind the superstructure and in the aft section appear intact.

The cause of the container fire is currently under investigation. However, some BCO representatives suspect that the use of containerized cargoes of calcium hypochlorite, a disinfecting and bleaching agent with a tendency for self-ignition, may be behind the fire. Maersk in 2010 and 2015 said it would not accept these types of containers, however, the BCO reps suspect that perhaps misdeclared containers of this compound were responsible for the blaze. Maersk said in a statement a week after the fire that it was too soon to conclude whether the fire was caused by dangerous goods, and the line is said to be investigating cargo contents and manifests. 

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Sources: Seatrade Maritime News, Lloyd’s Loading List, Maritime Executive