Misdeclared charcoal was likely source of Yantian Express fire – Germany says

Germany’s Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation (BSU) has said that misdeclared coconut charcoal was the most likely source of the fire on board German-flagged container ship Yantian Express (IMO 9229831), which caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean on January 3rd 2019.

The fire broke out in a container stowed on the deck of the Yantian Express above Hold 2 while she was under way in the North Atlantic. Winds of Force 8-9, cold temperatures and rain all made conditions on deck extremely challenging for the firefighting team.

The vessel was en route to Halifax, Nova Scotia but had to be towed far south to Freeport in the Bahamas  where salvage and the investigations could take place.

The fire burnt for 21 days

The BSU determined that the fire started in one of three containers identified on deck. However, due to the extent of the fire, investigators could not determine for certain which of the three containers was the actual source of the conflagration.

The BSU said that the most likely cause was a container containing coconut charcoal, which had been erroneously declared as coconut pellet.

Laboratory testing of some of the surviving charcoal cubes from this container showed that they had potential for auto-ignition below a temperature of about 50 degrees C. There were no other obvious candidates for ignition sources in the area where the fire broke out.

Flammable goods with a potential for self-ignition typically require testing and certifications for shipping. Therefore the BSU investigators said that they could not rule out the possibility that the shipper misdeclared the cargo in order to avoid compliance requirements.

The BSU noted similarities to the 2015 fire on board the MSC Katrina, where the self-ignition of charcoal cargo stowed in a container was determined to be the source. The report also referenced a number of inaccuracies in the Yantian Express’s fire and safety plan.

The BSU recommended that Hapag-Lloyd  enter a drencher system for the transverse bulkheads in some of the cargo holds of the Yantian Express and similar vessels.

Hapag-Lloyd had itself determined that the time delay units of the Yantian Express’s CO2 fire-extinguishing system were not fully functional. “Therefore, the shipping company immediately started to initiate an inspection/maintenance on all ships to ensure the correct functioning of this time delay units,” the recommendation said.

BSU noted several difficulties that the crew encountered during firefighting. The CO2 flooding system for Hold 1 did not fully discharge due to a malfunction of its time delay system, although in this instance it did not affect the course of the fire.

The crew also reported that firefighting and cooling underneath containers on deck was difficult due to the transverse bars welded between the container pads, which made it hard to spray water below containers in the middle of the stack. The structural design feature, created challenges to any firefighting effort.

Finally, accumulated water from the firefighting disabled the electrical bilge well valve controls in Hold 2, making it impossible to dewater the compartment until adequate portable bilge pump capacity was deployed. Bilge pumping for Hold 1 also failed, potentially because of debris and clogging. By January 11th the water in Hold 2 was 40ft deep and the Yantian Express was trimmed by the head by about 4ft.

2002-built, Germany-flagged, 88,493 gt Yantian Express is owned and managed by Hapag-Lloyd AG of Hamburg, Germany. It is entered with Britannia. Gard AS is claims leader for H&M.