A fire caught early on cruise vessel MSC Lirica spared lives in port in Corfu; but reminds us that blazes at sea can get much worse.
As 51 crewmembers made preparations for cruise vessel MSC Lirica to return to service after the COVID-19 pandemic had consigned it to a long lay-up off the Greek island of Corfu, a mysterious thing happened. At around 15:40 local time, one of the fibreglass lifeboats on the starboard side burst into flames.
The ship’s personnel set about extinguishing the fire, tackling the blaze over three hours. By 18:58, panic was over; none of the crew was hurt, and although it had destroyed the lifeboat – images of the aftermath also appear to show a second lifeboat on deck, unburned but apparently having broken in half – MSC Lirica had sustained superficial fire and smoke damage.
Watch the video on YouTube.
“The fire has since been brought under control thanks to the intervention of the ship’s two fire brigades and the support of the local emergency services,” said MSC in a statement.
At the time of writing, the report has yet to identify the cause. Perhaps an errant cigarette was to blame, although MSC’s statement insisted that the fire “seemed to have originated on an empty lifeboat on deck 6”. But either way, the vessel got off relatively lightly.
The last year has been characterised by a thinning out of the world cruising fleet, with drone and satellite images from scrapyards showing a huge number of MSC Lirica’s peers – many of them much larger, and with much greater investments in them – being dismantled. Greater damage might have consigned MSC Lirica to a similar fate.
Fire out at sea
A nightmare for cruise lines is a fire far out to sea, on a vessel laden with passengers, where emergency assistance is much harder to come by. This is exactly what happened in 2013, when a fuel leak in the engine room of Carnival Triumph, at the time loaded with 3,143 passengers and over 1,000 crew, led to a loss-of-propulsion (LOP).
The blaze – which the crew did “a very good job” responding to, US Coast Guard Commander Theresa Hatfield told press a week later – claimed no lives and resulted in no injuries. But, with the ship’s electricity supply knocked out, air conditioning systems and toilets ceased to operate. The vessel’s sewage systems backed up and began to spill into the ship. To avoid the unbearable smell, passengers camped out on the upper decks in makeshift tents, and food and drinking water were rationed.
It was not much of a triumphant cruise experience and, in the aftermath, the ship came to be referred to by its operator as Carnival Sunrise.
Danger of cargo containers
Fires in other maritime sectors show that the situation can get much worse. According to Gard figures in November 2020, there had been a fire involving containerised cargo both on shore and at sea every two weeks.
The most frequent cause was containerised charcoal, the risk management firm reported, but industrial chemicals, usually misdeclared, came a close second, and badly-packed batteries, which are becoming more prevalent as container cargo, are also a major concern.
“Luckily, we have not lately seen large casualties like the Yantian Express, Maersk Honam or the MSC Flaminia,” Gard Senior Claims Executive Are Solum explained.
Lucky indeed. In 2018, the Maersk Honam suffered a fire amidships, in the no. 3 cargo hold. Low down in the stack, the blaze had all the fuel it needed tightly packed in one place, and no ventilation to prevent heat spreading to the surrounding containers.
At the time, the only option to deal with this was to wade into the hold through thick black smoke, approach the white-hot container – which could explode at any moment – knock a hole into it with a pointed sledgehammer, and blast water-mist into it with a hose. But by the point Maersk Honam’s crew was aware of the fire, they were already dealing with a massive inferno; the ship’s CO2 systems could not stop it, either. The fire killed five.
“The magnitude and intensity of this fire made it impossible for any crew to successfully contain, making it key that we as an industry take steps to address the root cause to ensure seafarers never find themselves in a similar situation,” said Palle Laursen, Chief Technical Officer, A.P. Moller - Maersk. “...we are devastated that five colleagues lost their lives.”
Unsurprisingly, the first order of business has been developing new systems to fight fires inside containers. One is the Rosenby Engineering-designed HydroPen, a tool which uses water pressure to punch a hole in the container, before switching to spray mode to extinguish the fire with water, foam or CO2.
In 2019, V.Ships got 88 HydroPen systems for 45 boxships. It was a “system that addresses a specific industry concern,” Franck Kayser, Group Managing Director, V.Ships Ship Management.
Gard also noted that considerable effort is being put into better screening for misdeclared cargoes.
New technology is also being made available to quickly detect fires. With a lot of fuel necessarily in one place, whether in the cargo or passenger sectors thanks to the material and space requirements of each, standing on a floating platform that is on fire will always be horrifically dangerous; but, with early detection and swift action, as in the case of MSC Lirica, it need not end in tragedy.
Charlie Bartlett is a journalist specialising in maritime.