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Lax procedures blamed for giant fire aboard vehicle cargo ship

Burning ship.jpg
The Höegh Xiamen burns after a fire erupted June 4, 2020.

An improperly disconnected vehicle battery led to the fire aboard a vehicle-carrying ship at Blount Island that burned for more than a week and resulted in $40 million worth of damages, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

As a result of the investigation, the NTSB issued eight safety recommendations to federal regulators and the companies involved in the accident.

A marine accident report details the NTSB’s investigation of the June 4, 2020, fire aboard the Höegh Xiamen in Jacksonville.

Nine firefighters from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue were injured while responding. None of the vessel’s 21 crew members were hurt.

The Höegh Xiamen and its cargo of 2,420 used vehicles were declared a total loss at $40 million. In August 2020, after salvage operations were completed, the vessel was towed to Turkey to be recycled.

The fire broke out about 4 p.m. June 4 with hundreds of used and salvage cars loaded, according to Hoegh Autoliners, the ship’s Norwegian-based owner.

The crew noticed smoke coming from the ventilation housing while preparing to depart port for Baltimore. The fire eventually spread to other decks and continued to burn for eight days.

The NTSB concluded that many of the vehicles loaded onto the vessel had batteries that were not disconnected and secured in accordance with procedures, which increased the risk of electrical arcing and component faults. During loading operations, both the loading personnel and crew missed opportunities to address those hazards.

Burned cars.jpg
National Transportation Safety Board
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Burned vehicles are shown July 23, 2020, after removal from the Höegh Xiamen to Blount Island.

The investigation showed that the detection of the fire was delayed because the vessels’ fire detection systems had not yet been reactivated after loading was completed. Additionally, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department’s response to the accident was delayed because the Höegh Xiamen’s master did not immediately have available contact information for search and rescue authorities and did not know how to report a fire to local authorities.

Safety issues identified in the report include:

  • Ineffective training and oversight of vehicle battery securement.
  • Regulatory exceptions for used and damaged flammable‑liquid-powered vehicles.
  • Fire detection system deactivation during cargo loading.
  • Ineffective emergency distress calls.  

“The transportation of used vehicles, such as those that were loaded on vessels like the Höegh Xiamen, is currently excepted from Hazardous Materials Regulations when a vessel has a stowage area specifically designed and approved for carrying vehicles,” the NTSB said in the report. “We found that used vehicles are often damaged and present an elevated risk of fire. We believe that greater inspection, oversight, and enforcement are needed to reduce this risk.”
Five similar accidents have occured since 2015, including a 2019 fire aboard Grimaldi’s Grande Europa, according to the NTSB.

“The circumstances of this accident make clear that it is critical to ensure that the batteries of used vehicles are disconnected and properly secured during cargo loading operations,” the report said. “The NTSB believes it is imperative that operators of similar roll-on/roll-off vessels engaged in the transportation of used vehicles act to ensure that any personnel involved in loading operations — including vessel crews, stevedores, and longshoremen — be aware of the importance of disconnecting batteries on used vehicles.”

The public docket for the investigation contains more than 750 pages of factual information, including interview transcripts, photographs and other investigative materials.

Randy comes to Jacksonville from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, where, as metro editor, he led investigative coverage of the Parkland school shooting that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He has spent more than 40 years in reporting and editing positions in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Florida. You can reach Randy at rroguski@wjct.org or on Twitter, @rroguski.