WATCH: Overseas experts fly in to fight ship blaze

Carrier company calls on international specialists to combat fire on vessel

Specialist hazardous cargo fire experts have been flown in from London and Austria to assist with extinguishing the fire aboard a container ship docked at the Port of Ngqura. The fire is active but under control, with firefighters still unable to get below deck where the blaze is trapped.

Since Monday, Transnet tugboats fitted with fire-fighting equipment have been working nonstop, spraying containers on the deck of the 300m APL Austria with water.

Flames flared up sporadically on the containers yesterday and firefighters used high-pressure water hoses to drench the deck and douse the flames as clouds of smoke billowed across the port.

Port management said that by giving the 71 867-ton APL Austria safe refuge a potentially catastrophic maritime disaster had been averted – for now.

While the exact cost of the damage is unknown, it is expected to run into millions of rand.

The vessel is operated by APL and is managed by Shoei Kisen Kaisha.

APL, a global ocean carrier company, has flown in a specialist hazardous cargo fire expert from London and fire technicians from Austria.

Salvage operators from Cape Town have also arrived to help with the recovery and salvage of the cargo.

There were a total of 3 076 containers on the ship when it caught alight.

The APL Austria was en route to Cape Town from Reunion island, east of Madagascar, when the fire broke out below deck on Sunday night.

Transnet chief harbour master Rufus Lekala said there was no risk of pollution or even structural damage to the vessel – as yet.

“These ships are built to last and, as it stands now, there is no threat to the ship’s structure,” he said.

After the APL Austria docked on Monday, the terminal was closed temporarily until the blaze was contained.

Port management had reopened the terminal by yesterday as the fire was deemed to be under control.

Port manager Mpumi Dweba-Kweone tana said additional safety measures in the event of an unforeseen incident had already been put in place.

“We have experts on site and have made contingency plans in the highly unlikely event of any pollution,” she said.

Seventy containers – mostly those unaffected by the fire – had been off-loaded and placed on the quay by yesterday afternoon, while others had been moved to another location.

Dweba-Kwetana said plans were under way to remove the containers affected by the blaze – some of which were still on fire – and also place them on the quay.

“Those that are damaged will go to area, those that are undamaged to another area, and those with fire damage must be opened and emptied and the content stored,” she said.

Some hazardous materials such as paint and gas are aboard the ship. However, it is not known what cargo is below deck.

Dweba-Kwetana said by giving the APL Austria safe refuge, the port had averted a potential catastrophic maritime disaster and protected the lives of the crew while preserving the coastline from possible pollution. The fire started when the APL Austria was about 30 nautical miles off Cape St Francis.

Shortly before 9pm on Sunday, a distress call for assistance was sent to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which told the crew to backtrack to Algoa Bay, where it anchored at 2am on Monday.

The fire-fighting operation is being spearheaded by the SA Maritime Safety Authority.

The maritime watchdog’s regional head, Captain Nigel Campbell, said some of the containers had been placed strategically to create a firebreak in an attempt to contain the blaze further.

“We need to understand all of the cargo in the hold to decide on the medium to be used to extinguish [the fire],” he said.

Campbell said the cause of the fire would only be established once it had been extinguished.

He said there was no threat to the ship’s fuel or oil at this stage and no risk of pollution.

Municipal spokesman Mthubanzi Mniki, commenting on behalf of the Bay’s fire department, said efforts to assist Transnet firefighters were still under way.

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