Fire brought under control after container vessel docks in Port of Ngqura

A tugboat sprays the APL Austria, which was forced to dock in the Port of Ngqura on Monday after a fire broke out on board Picture: Eugene Coetzee
A tugboat sprays the APL Austria, which was forced to dock in the Port of Ngqura on Monday after a fire broke out on board
Picture: Eugene Coetzee

Chaos erupted when a 280m container ship transporting hazardous material, including paint and gas, was forced to dock in Port Elizabeth after a fire broke out on board.

The alarm was raised when the cargo vessel, the APL Austria, made a distress call for assistance to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre shortly before 9pm on Sunday.

The burning ship anchored in Algoa Bay five hours later and, by 11am yesterday, it had been escorted into the Port of Ngqura, where firefighters boarded it.

Shortly before it anchored in Algoa Bay, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and Transnet tugboats responded to the call for assistance, which led to the evacuation of four non-essential personnel, one of whom was slightly injured, from the ship.

At 8.30 last night, the fire was under control.

Municipal firefighters are assisting with the operations.

Before the docking yesterday, smoke could be seen billowing from the ship as three Transnet tugboats sprayed water on the vessel.

Municipal spokesman Mthubanzi Mniki, commenting on behalf of the Bay’s fire department, confirmed late last night that metro firefighters were still on board.

He said although the blaze had been brought under control, the fire-fighting team would stay on the ship overnight.

Mniki said some of the containers were being off-loaded while others were being moved out of the danger zone.

Two municipal rescue pumps, one Transnet rescue pump vehicle, a foam tanker, hazardous material unit, a breathing apparatus trailer and a mobile operations unit had been deployed to help combat the fire, he said.

Officials confirmed that hazardous material such as paint, refrigeration gas and various other types of chemical cargo was on the ship.

The fire broke out while the vessel was about 30 nautical miles southwest of Cape St Francis, travelling towards Cape Town.

The ship is registered in Liberia and owned by APL, an international container shipping provider that transports an assortment of cargo.

SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) technical adviser Captain Daron Burgess, who was on the ship yesterday, said: “Initially it was thought that the fire was in the number three cargo hold, but it was later confirmed that it was actually in number four.

“The vessel was instructed to proceed to Algoa Bay anchorage and she arrived at about 2am [yesterday],” he said.

Burgess, together with Transnet officials and two firefighters, boarded the ship at about 4am.

At 5am, the APL Austria was ordered to move further out to sea inside the bay to clear the way for other vessels that needed to anchor.

Shortly after news of the fire broke, a Joint Operations Centre (JOC) consisting of the Nelson Mandela Bay Emergency Medical Services, the fire department, Transnet and Samsa was established at the Port of Ngqura.

Of the 21 crew members, four were evacuated, with the others staying on board to fight the blaze.

Air force helicopters were also placed on standby.

Burgess confirmed that several containers containing hazardous cargo were on deck but had not been affected by the fire.

He said the cause of the fire was being investigated.

By 11am, the ship had been escorted to the Port of Ngqura by three Transnet tugs and the NSRI.

Bay Emergency Medical Services manager Brenhan Metune confirmed that one person was slightly hurt during the incident.

“One crew member injured his leg and was evacuated during the early hours and taken to a Port Elizabeth hospital,” he said.

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