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Weighing containers before loading aboard ship last year could have averted a stack collapse judged to have contributed to a container fire on the 15,500teu Eugene Maersk last year, it has been claimed.

Classified by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as a “serious casualty”, Eugene Maersk crew members saw smoke billowing from stern-most container stacks at bay 90, while it was transiting the pirate-inhabited waters of the Gulf of Aden.

After efforts to put out the fire were unsuccessful, the vessel docked in the DP World-operated port of Djibouti the following day. There, the fire was finally extinguished some five days after it was first noticed.

Altogether, 16 containers were destroyed or damaged, and the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board (DMaib) report into the incident found that a collapsed stack was either the cause of the fire, or had substantially exacerbated it.

The report said: “Investigations have revealed two likely main scenarios: the fire started as a result of friction heat created by the collapse of the container stacks. This ignited the contents of the containers and the fire developed from there.”

Or: “The fire was initiated at an early stage, perhaps even before the containers were loaded on board. After having slowly smouldered for a long time, the collapse of the containers created a sudden burst of oxygen which made the fire flare up and develop.

“In both scenarios the collapse of containers is considered a major contributing factor to the fire,” the report summed up, although it added that there was no evidence to support one theory over the other.

The vessel had been through some heavy weather two days before the fire was discovered, during which time the crew found the lashings of two containers in bay 90 had come loose and the stack was swaying 1.5 metres from side to side.

The containers had all been loaded in Shanghai, and it was the first time since the vessel had been built in 2008 that it had carried an eight-high stack in bay 90.

According to shipper declarations, all the containers were within legal weight limits, although “several stacks on bay 90 were in the region of 97-99% of the maximum allowable load”.

Speaking at last week’s TOC Container Supply Chain event in London, container safety expert Bill Brassington said the margin for error that allowed was too small, and he suggested mandatory weighing of containers could have prevented the incident.

“Would it have made a difference if these containers had been weighed before loading? Most certainly.”

Recent research by Mr Brassington found that the average weight of containers has been on the increase: from 17.4 tonnes for a 20ft in 2010, to 21 tonnes in 2013.

“Based on this, the total mass on a 10-high stack would be 189,153kg, which is just 3,000kg under the IMO’s upper limit, and means that if just two containers are out by half a tonne the limit has been reached,” he said.

In the case of Eugen Maersk, some damage was discovered to containers that had occurred prior to the fire. However, according to maintenance reports, the boxes themselves were in good condition and had recently undergone repairs.

DMAIB wrote: “The reason for the collapse of containers leading up to the fire was most likely a combination of factors, including their structural integrity, the weather conditions, the stack weights, the lashings and dynamic forces acting on the ship.

“As containers are not weighed upon loading, it is uncertain whether some stack loads exceeded the maximum acceptable load and thus could have contributed to the collapse of the container stacks,” it continued.

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