Fremantle Highway Fire
Photo: Dutch coastguard

Yet another car carrier inferno, this one with electric vehicle batteries explicitly named as the culprit, resulting in the death of a seafarer and injuries to 22 others, is raising safety concerns beyond the threat of the fire itself.

Seven of Panama-flagged Fremantle Highway’s 25-strong crew jumped from the ship into the water, resulting in injuries and broken bones – and a drop of some 30 metres entails hitting seawater at 130 kph – more than enough to be lethal.

“One by one, they jumped and we had to fish them out of the water,” said Willard Molenaar, a lifeboat captain who arrived on the scene. “They were really desperate, so they had to jump – you don’t just do that for the sake of it.”

Operated by K-Line, but owned by an Imabari Shipbuilding subsidiary, the Fremantle Highway tragedy adds to the already patchy safety record of car carriers, whose designs had suffered from a number of major shortcomings even before the epidemic of fires on board relating to electric cars. These include the free-surface effect, and high wind resistance.

“One issue that has to be of concern is the crew,” Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club risk management director, told The Loadstar.

“You had 25 people on board, most of whom managed to get off, one tragically died. But some of them had to jump off – that can’t be right. They shouldn’t be jumping off the ship, there should be a lifeboat.”

In fact images of Fremantle Highway from before the fire show twin lifeboats positioned aft of the bridge. Unfortunately, analysis of video footage appears to show the initial explosion and subsequent blaze in a cargo area precisely underneath them, before spreading along the length of the ship. Aerial video footage from the Dutch coastguard shows both lifeboats still on board the burning vessel, apparently unused.

“There will be investigations” to determine why the lifeboats were unusable, Mr Storrs-Fox said.

This month, another incident, on Grimaldi ro-ro vessel Grande Costa d’Avorio, while alongside, claimed the lives of two New York firefighters – though the authorities have written off EV batteries as a potential cause. The mayor of Newark told the New York Times he wanted to create a unit that would be specially trained to respond to emergencies in the city’s port.

In the case of the Felicity Ace, lost in February 2022, it is not thought possible to determine if the presence of electric cars was the cause, but authorities are agreed it was almost certainly an exacerbating factor. In 2019, three car carriers were lost, two, Diamond Highway and Grande America, relating to catastrophic fires.

“At this stage we have to recognise that there is a bad run of [fires], if not a concerning trend,” Mr Storrs-Fox said.

Following the loss of Felicity Ace, safety measures taken throughout the car carrier sector include, in some cases, refusing to load used or damaged electric cars altogether. Among the shipowners to do this is K-Line compatriot, MOL.

“Firstly, these crew are not firefighters – they have firefighting training, but they also have 101 other jobs,” said Mr Storrs-Fox.

“To be honest, everyone is in catch-up mode. The car industry seems to focusing on everything but safety – how we get more charge into these things [batteries], how can we charge [them] faster. I have seen vanishingly little attention paid to safety… there is no one saying ‘how do we engage with first responder’, ‘how are we engaging with those who will move and store these vehicles on behalf of manufacturers?’.

“Improving safety will be a matter of getting people to break out of their silos and talk to one another.”

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.