The dangers of onboard vehicle fires

A simple electrical fault on a used car aboard a roll-on/roll-off carrier resulted in a catastrophic fire and millions of dollars of damage...

A simple electrical fault on a used car aboard a roll-on/roll-off carrier resulted in a catastrophic fire and millions of dollars of damage — a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly commonplace in the sector.

On the afternoon of June 4, 2020, the crew of the roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier Höegh Xiamen were preparing to depart from a terminal in Jacksonville, Florida, when they noticed smoke coming from the ventilation system running between the cargo decks. They quickly discovered that a fire had started on one of the decks loaded with used vehicles due to be transported to Africa but, forced back by thick heavy smoke, were unable to tackle it.  
When the local fire department eventually arrived, the captain evacuated the crew and had carbon dioxide from the fixed fire-extinguishing system released into the affected decks. 
The fire, however, continued to spread throughout several of the other higher cargo decks.  
The ship burned for more than a week with fire boats spraying the hull to prevent a rupture that could release fuel oil into the water. Firefighters reported seeing cars melting in the heat, and an explosion led to eight firefighters being hospitalized with injuries and burns. 
The Höegh Xiamen and its cargo of 2,420 used vehicles were declared a total loss valued at $40m. In August 2020, the vessel was towed to Turkey to be recycled.

2. Hoegh Xiamen.jpg
Credit: JFRD (Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department)

Investigation findings

​An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the fire was probably caused by an electrical arc or component fault in one of the vehicles loaded on the vessel and that many of the vehicles didn’t have properly secured or disconnected batteries. 
The fire department’s response was also delayed because Höegh Xiamen’s captain did not have immediately-available contact information for search and rescue authorities and did not know how to report a fire to local authorities e.g. who to call, what number to dial, or which frequency to use.  
He also failed to activate the ship’s Digital Selective Calling (DSC) distress button which would have automatically transmitted the vessel’s position and identified it to the Coast Guard and nearby vessels.

Report recommendations

The report points to ineffective oversight by Grimaldi Deep Sea, to whom the vessel was on time charter, and SSA Atlantic, who provided the stevedores to load the vehicles, which did not identify that the vehicle battery securement procedures were not being followed. 
The NTSB has recommended that Grimaldi Deep Sea and SSA Atlantic improve their oversight of vehicle loading, along with the training of personnel involved in battery securement for used and damaged vehicles, and that procedures involving the deactivation of fire detection systems are revised to ensure emergency contact information is immediately available for bridge teams.​​​  
The NTSB has also recommended that US federal agencies improve regulations for vehicle carriers transporting used vehicles.

4. Hoegh Xiamen.jpg
Credit: JFRD (Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department)

Similar incidents

Jacksonville Sector Coast Guard says that it had to investigate two other roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier fires in 2020, following the Höegh Xiamen incident. In August, Arc Independence experienced a cargo hold fire while underway, which was contained after smoke was seen rising from a used vehicle’s hood. Then, in November, Höegh Transporter experienced a fire while alongside, believed to have been started by an electrical fault in a new vehicle being that was stowed onboard. 

A significant, and increasingly worrying, number of other vehicle-related fires have occurred aboard roll-on/roll-off cargo ships in recent years around the world.

  • In 2015, the roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier Courage was travelling from Germany to England when a fire broke out in its hold, probably caused by electrical arcing in the braking system of a used vehicle — resulting in $40m of damage and Courage having to be scrapped.

  • In 2017, the roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier Honor was enroute from England to the US when a fire broke out in the upper vehicle deck, probably caused by a faulty starter solenoid in one of the onboard vehicles — resulting in $700,000 damage to the hold and 5,000 vehicles.

  • In 2019, the Grimaldi roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier Grande America sank in the Bay of Biscay following a cargo fire after sparks were found coming from a truck on a vehicle deck.

  • In the same year, a major fire broke out aboard another Grimaldi roll-on/roll-off vessel, Grande Europa, while the vessel was sailing 20 miles off the coast of Mallorca, Spain, following smaller fires which started from two different vehicles on board — an incident that led to Grimaldi developing a battery disconnect procedure that should, subsequently, have been used to secure vehicle batteries during loading on board the Höegh Xiamen.

Read the full NTSB Höegh Xiamen investigation report.

See a recording of the heat explosion, a video of the burned-out vehicles (strong language) and watch the tugs relocating Hoegh Xiamen after the fire.


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.