COLUMN: The burning box [Grey Power]


What will it take to stop shippers who don't care, killing seafarers and burning ships on a regular basis? The terrifying pictures of the giant Maersk Honan with its whole forepart a mass of roaring flames and the body count of five dead, several injured and a whole crew traumatised, ought, you might think, ram home the reasons for the utmost care in shipping dangerous cargo.

But it probably will make little difference to the mentality of cowboy shippers, who really do not care about their compliance with requirements to stow cargo properly or to declare its nature with any accuracy. Predominantly based in Asia, where these problematic cargoes originate, they will cheat the regulations because they think they can get away with it, because they calculate the odds of discovery are on their side or because they simply don't think that dead seafarers or wrecked ships are anything to do with them.

The case of the giant Maersk ship might be an extreme example, made infinitely worse because the fire broke out with the ship on passage nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest land, but it is just one in a regular pattern. The International Union of Marine Insurance has pointed out that a fire on a container ship is taking place at a rate of one per month and the number is not decreasing.

The value of seafarers' lives

The sea carriers are doing what they can, but it is clearly insufficient to penetrate the dim brains of those who have not the slightest compunction in labelling calcium hypochlorite "whitening agent" – which makes it seem as innocuous as toothpaste – or a box of lithium ion batteries "mobile phone accessories".

The P&I club Gard listed a number of the more outrageous disguises to which crooked shippers have resorted, and which have been detected by alert carriers. Worryingly, Gard also points out that that even if a carrier has rejected a suspect box, that container with its potentially deadly contents might be accepted by another line, but shipped with the carrier which first rejected it, through space sharing arrangements.

Is there enough cooperation between carriers? There is the Cargo Incident Notification System, which permits reasonable amount of data sharing, but more could probably be done.

Incredibly, the blacklisting of the criminally irresponsible, or simply criminal shippers is not permitted – because of competition law. Sadly this speaks volumes about the value of seafarers', port workers' and the lives of others, put at risk quite unnecessarily by the precious priorities of lawyers and competition regulators.

Maybe it is no surprise that there are so many cargo fires, when the sheer volume of hazardous cargo travelling by sea is considered. The International Cargo Handling Coordination Association suggests that overall, some 10 per cent of shipments are of manifested dangerous goods – more than five million boxes per annum.

On some routes it is said that there is an even higher percentage of the total. Because of the sheer number, and the need for speed that is part and parcel of container trades, only a tiny number of these are ever inspected. Where there have been concentrated inspections, the number of errors and mis-declarations discovered has been truly alarming. Yet how often does anyone ever hear of the book being thrown at guilty shippers for their crimes and misdemeanours?

Only in the most extreme case, where a major Chinese port was devastated with huge loss of life after a huge explosion and conflagration of DGs, did guilty people face punishment. Dead seafarers, it is said, don't make waves, as they are brought ashore from their wrecked ships.

Can the ships themselves be better equipped or designed differently to contain fires in the cargo spaces? Insurers, concerned about both the regularity of these fires and their potential severity, have suggested a number of measures. Simply tackling a blazing box buried in a deck container stack which, on the biggest ships, might be nine high and 24 across, is an awesome prospect, but they have proposed fire-proof athwartship barriers between stacks and far more powerful water-drenching arrangements.

The frightful tangle of burned wreckage

The various films of the Maersk Honan taken by the Indian Coast Guard cutter, which was the first useful assistance on the scene, showed the entire forepart of the ship ablaze, although it was suggested that the original fire started below hatches in the No.3 hold.

There was just no way that a ship's crew, forced to evacuate their accommodation island, and casualties multiplying, was ever going to make an impact on such a fire. It asks far too much of even the best-organised and well-drilled crew to search out a fire deep in a container stack and put their lives on the line with the limited equipment they would have available.

The sheer magnitude of the destruction that can be wrought on a big container ship is difficult to exaggerate, while the aftermath in terms of the clean-up, salvage and insurance complications cannot be underestimated. There is little doubt that a laden, westbound 20,000TEU containership would have more than $1 billion worth of cargo aboard.

Even if the ship is saved, the insurance adjustment for the vast number of shippers and consignees is likely to take years. Physically, dealing with the frightful tangle of burned wreckage and the "cocktail" of unknown chemicals swilling around in the holds and bilges will require months of specialised help. And all because some shipper could not care less about lives lost, injuries and all the consequences of ignoring the most elementary rules.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World