Explosion on car carrier off Jacksonville, Florida

Eight firefighters were injured in an explosion aboard car carrier Hoegh Xiamen (IMO 9431848) which was berthed at the Blount Island Marine Terminal in the port of Jacksonville, Florida, during the afternoon of June 4th, requiring hospitalization. Five were released, but three remained in hospital more than 24 hours later with burn injuries.

The 600ft RoRo was carrying a consignment of used cars intended for export to the West African market. The ship’s most recent port call was Freeport, Texas. Its next scheduled stop was to be Baltimore, Maryland.

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department said that the nature of the injuries included hand and facial burns, and that the firefighters had a long road ahead for recovery.

Commercial salvors have been contracted to manage the marine firefighting effort aboard the carrier. The salvage team suspected that the explosion was the result of a release of gases that built up within the interior after the vessel’s fire dampers were closed.

The ship’s seventh deck was believed to have been the source of the fire shortly after the vessel completed loading operations, vessel operator Höegh Autoliners said.

The fire spread through several other levels up to the 11th deck and down to deck six, according to USCG Sector Jacksonville commander Captain Mark Vlaun.

JFRD Chief Keith Powers told local media on Friday that the vessel’s fire dampers have been shut in an effort to starve the fire of oxygen. He said that firefighters on board were dealing with zero visibility and enough heat to make the paint peel off the outside of the vessel. One firefighter was being treated for heat exhaustion.

Officials plan to place a boom around the vessel to prevent the spread of pollution, though no environmental impacts have been reported so far.

Temperatures at lower deck levels remained in the range of 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the response team hoped to contain the “complex” fire above deck six – away from machinery spaces and bunker tanks. The vessel remained on an even keel, with half a degree of list and no change in draft. This would be a sign that the hull cooling effort was not introducing water into the interior. “This is about as much success as you could hope for in this scenario,” said Captain Vlaun.

The Coast Guard set a 500-yard safety zone around the Höegh Xiamen.

The Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT) said its other cargo operations had not been impacted by the incident. The Northeast Florida commercial cargo port is one of the largest on the Atlantic Coast and is among the nation’s busiest car ports.

According to Vlaun, the cooling provided by the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department’s fire boats likely prevented the ship from breaking up, which would have resulted in pollution and a much more complex salvage effort. “That’s our number one goal now, to keep the ship in one piece so that we can keep the port operating and minimize any potential for pollution,” said Captain Vlaun.

Gallagher Marine and Resolve Marine have been contracted for the next phase of the firefighting and salvage effort, with Jacksonville firefighters standing by in reserve.

The 12,250 dwt Höegh Xiamen is a 4,900 teu vehicle carrier built in 2010 and currently operated via vessel charter by Grimaldi Group.

2010-built, Norway-flagged, 47,232 gt Hoegh Xiamen is owned by OCY Xiamen Ltd care of manager Höegh Autoliners Management AS of Oslo, Norway. ISM manager is Höegh Technical Management-Philippines of Manila, Philippines. It is entered with Gard P&I Club on behalf of OCY Xiamen Ltd. It is entered for H&M with Norwegian Hull Club as claims leader on behalf of Höegh Autoliners Management AS.