On the 3rd of Jan 2019, part of the Yantian Express a 7,510 TEU, 320m German-flagged ship of Hapag Lloyd went up in flames while on its way from Colombo to Halifax via the Suez Canal..
The fire that broke out was largely contained and brought under control after one week and the ship sailed to the Port of Freeport (Bahamas) for further recovery and cargo damage assessment eventually reaching Halifax 5 months later..
The ship was carrying around 3,875 containers at the time of the incident of which 320 containers were a total loss and eventually general average was declared..
The Bundesstelle für Seeunfalluntersuchung (BSU) or Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation undertook an investigation on the fire on board the Yantian Express..
Apart from investigating the cause of the incident, the sole objective of this investigation was to prevent future accidents and not to ascertain fault, liability or claim..
The Yantian Express fire investigation report demonstrates that it is not all that easy to pinpoint the exact cause and reason for such incidents but it does a great job in identifying certain possibilities and also finding out other information in the meantime.. Truly interesting..
The route to the conclusions reached by the investigators is very interesting to read and shows the many important considerations that are required when preparing your cargo for export..
Here is a summary of the route of the investigation
The fire was detected when two containers in Bay 12 were already fully ablaze.. The investigators identified 2 containers in stow positions 120382 and 120582 (both loaded on deck) as the first containers to catch fire..
One of these containers was loaded with polypropylene shopping bags and the other container was loaded with cotton garments..
As per the investigators, a characteristic of polypropylene products is that they produce comparatively high combustion heat when burning and at 46.0 MJ/kg, this heat is higher than that of heating oil (42.8 MJ/kg) or wood (approx. 18.5 MJ/kg).. The ignition temperature of polypropylene is between 390 cc and 410°C..
But the investigators found no evidence to suggest contaminants or the like would lead to spontaneous combustion causing the fire..
The container with cotton garments alongwith another container with the same cargo and was already in transit for more than a month on board..
Here is a fact that I did not know.. “Cotton garments can catch fire due to self-heating if contaminated with animal or vegetable fats or oils“.. Like, wow..!! A simple day to day item..
While the investigations could not exclude the possibility of this, they also knew that if this was the cause, the self-ignition should have happened much quicker based on the passage of time in transit.. The investigators also believed that the highly compressed packaging of the garments was more likely to prevent spontaneous combustion..
More contemplation and investigation..
The investigations were focused on Bay 12 which is where the blaze was first sighted.. So they now looked into other containers in the immediate vicinity of the fire..
- a reefer container with pineapples was discounted as this does not pose a fire hazard and also there were no traces of fire inside the unit ;
- a container loaded with horns was also discounted although the packaging was flammable, but could not have been the cause ;
- a container loaded with wooden furniture and another container loaded with disposable coveralls were also considered, but the investigators believed that these could have only caught fire if there was something like an unextinguished cigarette or something but had to be discounted based on the passage of time and transit ;
- then there was a container loaded with tyres which was also discounted because it posed no specific danger based on the passage of time and transit
The investigators then looked at the other containers that had caught fire when an increase of the containers that had caught fire was reported to the bridge..
Among these containers was a container loaded with coconut pellets..
When this container was opened and based on the items of cargo found on the deck, it became clear to the investigators that the cargo in this container was actually Pyrochar (coconut charcoal) and NOT coconut pellets as declared..
Pyrochar which is also coconut-based burns at a high temperature (600 °C to 650 ‘C) and produces a very low amount of smoke.
Pyrochar is a product processed after the production of raw coal by grinding the raw coal to a fine powder which is mixed with water and additives to form a paste which is then moulded into shapes of cubes. slices or hexagonal strands, baked to remove the water and solidify it for packaging and shipping..
Pyrochar has properties comparable to wood-based charcoal and is used as fuel for Hookahs or Shishas or for barbecues..
As per the report, Pyrochar is a self-heating substance which is defined as
“A self-heating substance or mixture is a liquid or solid substance or mixture, other than a pyrophoric43 liquid or solid. which. by reaction with air and without energy supply, is liable to self-heat: this substance or mixture differs from a pyrophoric or solid in that it will ignite only when in large amounts (kilograms) and after long periods of time (hours or days). Self-heating of substances or mixtures, leading to spontaneous combustion, is caused by reaction of the substance or mixture with oxygen (in the air) and the heat developed not being conducted away rapidly enough to the surroundings.
Spontaneous combustion occurs when the rate of heat production exceeds the rate of heat loss and the auto-ignition temperature is reached. ”
Now here is the interesting and important part..
The report identified that “The transport of animal- or vegetable-based charcoal usually requires a test to prove that the product does not constitute dangerous goods as defined by class 4.2 of the IMDG Code. It must be established that the product’s tendency to self-heat is only limited. This test must be carried out by an accredited laboratory. Moreover, the manufacturer must prove by means of a certificate that the product has undergone a longer cooling phase following production to enable safe transportation. In addition a certificate describing the moisture content, the proportion of bound carbon, the proportion of volatile matter and the ash content must accompany the product. None of the above documents accompanied the Pyrochar during transportation.”
While the investigators assume that the declaration of the contents of this suspect container was incorrect, they did not rule out the prospect that it may have been misdeclared to avoid compliance with tests and conditions mentioned above..
To me, this is the KEY finding in the Yantian Express fire investigation..
Because there was no actual reference material like an MSDS or test reports as above, the actual properties could not be proven and the investigators could not reach any conclusions about the probability or possible cause of the self-heating process and therefore the outbreak of fire in the Pyrochar container..
However, the investigators believe that this is where the fire originated because Pyrochar burns with almost no smoke which means that the crew were not aware of the fire inside the container..
Because the outbreak of fire would have occurred in the middle of this block and because this Pyrochar container was stowed (stow position 120782) directly adjacent to the Polypropylene Bags (stow position 120582), the investigators believe that the burning temperature and heat emitted from the Pyrochar container was sufficient to ignite the Polypropylene.. !! See image below on the proximity..
The report concluded that an outbreak of fire due to self-heating in the container loaded with Pyrochar (misdeclared as Coconut Pellets) was considered to be the most likely reason for this incident..
Such incidents and investigations highlight the moral and ethical responsibility that shippers have in providing the correct information to the carrier in terms of the cargo that is packed in the containers and its characteristics..
At the same time, carriers must also exercise due diligence when dealing with cargoes that they are unsure of or don’t know of.. This further reiterates the position that people handling the freight and operations desks must be aware of the cargoes that is being shipped and not just act as a post office or conveyor belt for information..
Such incidents also highlights the effects of cargo misdeclaration and the losses that are incurred not just by the defaulting party, but by other customers as well for no fault of theirs..
Image Source : Bundesstelle für Seeunfalluntersuchung (BSU) – Yantian Express fire investigation report