Misdeclared charcoal cargo believed to have caused fire on Yantian Express

Yantian Express

Germany’s Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation (Bundesstelle für Seeunfalluntersuchung; BSU) recently published its report on its investigation into the fire that erupted on the German-flagged containership Yantian Express while it was in transit in the Atlantic Ocean early last year.

Timeline of events

On January 3, 2019, the Hapag-Lloyd-owned 7,510TEU vessel Yantian Express was en route to Halifax and was due to reach the Canadian port the following day when a blaze ignited in one of the onboard cargo containers.

The ship’s officers immediately ordered the crew to fight the fire. However, firefighting efforts proved inadequate, and the blaze subsequently spread to the superstructure.

Hapag-Lloyd hired a salvage company to provide a tug that will handle the firefighting operation, but this was also unable to prevent the blaze from reaching further into one of the containership’s cargo holds.

Upon realising that the fire could no longer be successfully contained, Yantian Express‘ entire crew evacuated the crippled vessel and transferred to the waiting salvage tug.

On January 7, the platform supply vessel (PSV) Maersk Mobiliser reached the incident site and took over firefighting operations.

On January 9, since the situation on board Yantian Express seemed safer than in the previous days, five crewmembers returned to the vessel voluntarily and resumed operations from the bridge. The salvage master then started working on the damaged ship with the help of the other crewmembers.

In the succeeding days, further tugs and supply ships reached Yantian Express and took salvage technicians and firefighters along with their equipment to the scene. The containership’s remaining crewmembers were taken to the next port by another Hapag-Lloyd vessel.

Nineteen days after the fire broke out, the salvage company declared the fire on the containers on Yantian Express extinguished. On January 22, towing of the ship towards the Bahamas commenced though the ship was able to make part of the voyage under its own power with two tugs as escort.

On January 26, the flames in the burning containers in the affected cargo hold were extinguished and all fire extinguishing pumps were stopped.

Yantian Express arrived in the waters off Bahamas at the end of January 2019 and was allowed to sail into Freeport several days later in early February.


The BSU started its investigation into the fire on board Yantian Express after the vessel had arrived at the anchorage of Freeport. Areas of the ship believed to have contributed to the spread of the blaze were thoroughly inspected.

The BSU said that its investigation could not clarify the cause of the fire with absolute certainty. This impediment was due to 1) the very long duration of the fire and 2) the extensive use of firefighting water which, although effective in preventing the further spread of the flames, had the unintended effect of causing the possible origins of the fire to become physically distorted and less recognisable over time.

By process of elimination, investigators identified three onboard containers that could have possibly caused the fire. One container was laden with coconut charcoal but had erroneously been declared as “coconut pellets” on the bill of lading.

The BSU claims charcoal cargo that had self-ignited was also the cause of the fire incident on the containership MSC Katrina in the Elbe River on November 20, 2015.

The incident on Yantian Express will be investigated further, the BSU clarified.

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