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NTSB: Used vehicle battery caused weeklong cargo ship fire

Black smoke continued pouring from cargo ship 20 hours after the fire was first reporting (WJXT/Sky 4)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The National Transportation Safety Board has released its investigative report on the June 4, 2020 fire aboard a cargo ship at Blount Island.

NTSB said the fire on the Hoegh Xiamen started on the eighth deck of the ship, sparked by an improperly disconnected battery on one of the 2,400 vehicles onboard.

The NTSB determined that the ship’s fire detection system was offline for the loading process when the fire started and wasn’t reactivated until after the smoke was first seen.

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According to the report, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department’s response was delayed because the ship’s sailing master “did not have immediately available contact information for search and rescue authorities and did not know how to report a fire to local authorities—who to call, what number to dial, or which frequency to use.”

The NTSB said the first call to emergency crews was from someone onshore. It lists the following timetable:

  • 3:30 p.m.: Smoke first seen on the ship
  • 3:45 p.m. Ship’s fire detection system re-activated
  • 3:49 p.m.: Ship’s sailing master starts making radio calls
  • 3:54 p.m.: The distress call is relayed to the U.S. Coast Guard by another vessel
  • 3:59 p.m.: An onshore witness calls 911
  • 4:03 p.m.: The first JFRD unit reaches the ship

According to the report, nine members of JFRD were injured while fighting the fire, five seriously. The fire burned for a total of eight days. None of the vessel’s 21 crewmembers was injured.

The ship was a total loss and more than 2,400 vehicles on board were as well. There was a total of more than $40 million in damage.

The vessel was towed to Turkey to be recycled in August 2020 after salvage operations were completed. According to the Coast Guard, because of the tireless efforts to spray water on the ship’s exterior, the vessel’s hull remained intact — keeping it from breaking up and sinking, which was a good thing for safety and potential environmental impacts.

The NTSB concluded many of the vehicles loaded onto the vessel had batteries that were not disconnected and secured in accordance with procedures, which increased the risk of electrical arcing and component faults. During loading operations, both the loading personnel and crew missed opportunities to address these hazards, officials said.

The NTSB recommended that the shipping companies improve oversight of vehicle loading and training of personnel involved in battery securement. The agency recommended federal agencies improve regulations for ships that transport used vehicles. The NTSB also recommended that the vessel’s operator revise their procedures for the reactivation of fire detection systems and ensuring emergency contact information is immediately available for bridge teams.

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Sky 4 over burning cargo ship

About the Authors:

Renee Beninate is a Florida native and award-winning reporter who joined the News4Jax team in June 2021.