Craig Eason | LLOYD’S LIST
IF THE flames shooting 12 m in the air from the containers on board Charlotte Maersk had been any nearer the accommodation, Dick Danielsen knows the outcome may have been different.
He would have been forced to abandon the ship rather than try and contain the blaze until a team of professional firefighters came on board to help his crew.
It was a mixture of skill, cool thinking and luck that made sure no one was injured or even killed in the 11 days it took to extinguish the fire, which wrecked 150 containers, many of which melted in the 1,000° temperatures that were reached.
He has been master on the 2002-built, 8,189 teu boxship for seven years, but it was the first fire in his career and he hopes it will be his last.
At one point, shortly after the decision to fight the fire, there was a sudden balloon of flames. It was like a slow explosion, according to the captain, who saw the fire and smoke suddenly surge into the air just as the crew tackled the blaze.
“My concern was if anyone had got injured — luckily no one was. But they ran like hell to get further away,” said Capt Danielsen, who at this point started to assess if it was the right decision to tackle the fire, or to begin thinking about abandoning ship.
“These thoughts were with me for about five minutes until we made the decision to fight the fire.”
Because the ship’s crew do not know the contents of the containers — other than those that have been declared as having dangerous cargoes — there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether another explosion would happen.
He was in constant contact with staff in the Maersk Line offices in Copenhagen, who were feeding him the information he needed to understand what was likely to happen if he fought the blaze. Very soon the whole crew were engaged in tackling the fire, using all 63 fire hoses the ship had on board.
One of the first realisations he made after talking to experts on the ship’s satellite phone was that this type of fire could not be extinguished — there was a suspicion calcium hypochlorite was involved.
All the crew could do was keep the surrounding containers cool and let the flames die down themselves. This was not without its risks. At such high temperatures the heat could effectively jump across bays to find a container with something more flammable inside and ignite it.
Tackling the fire was intensive. All through the first night the crew were at hoses, which due to the power of the water and their length took at least two men to handle.
Everyone was on deck, including the steward and ship’s cook, helping to tackle the blaze.
In the course of tackling the fire, the Malaysian Coastguard offered a fire-fighting aircraft, which made three unsuccessful attempts to drop water on to the vessel and sent fire-fighting tugs to assist. By this time the captain had made the decision to anchor the vessel so that if he made the decision to abandon ship it would not then drift and create additional problems.
He then used the vessel’s stern thrusters to continually position the vessel to keep the smoke blowing off the port side of the ship rather than over the ship and hindering the firefighters.
At one point Charlotte Maersk’s two cadets had spent 48 hours refilling the ships eight breathing-air bottles, and when the Dutch fire-fighting team arrived, refilling theirs as well. The air compressor was running almost continually to keep up with demand.
A crucial moment during the battle with the fire was when the team of firefighters decided the time had come to start opening up each individual container that had been ablaze to make sure the fire inside had been doused.
“They were opening some containers with [cutting] torches,” said Capt Danielsen. “Sometimes the crews had to attack the top containers in the five-high stacks”.
With the lashing bridges reaching the bottom three boxes, they were forced to use aluminium ladders tied up against containers to get up to reach the necessary height, even having to go across the top of boxs to reach burnt ones.
“To be honest this was the most severe time for accidents,” he said. “But we wanted to extinguish it from the top as from the bottom would have been pointless.”
It was only after the firefighters had opened up all 150 containers that they could all feel reassured that the fire was extinguished.