Ship blaze that injured firefighters may burn for days

Jacksonville community asked to pray for firefighters

VIDEO: Three of eight firefighters injured in an explosion aboard a car-carrier ship docked at the Jacksonville Port Authority’s Blount Island Marine Terminal are out of the hospital.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Five of eight firefighters injured Thursday evening in an explosion aboard a car-carrier ship docked at the Jacksonville Port Authority’s Blount Island Marine Terminal were out of the hospital Friday. A ninth firefighter was treated and released for heat exhaustion, according to Jacksonville Fire-Rescue.

The blast occurred nearly three hours after firefighters responded to a fire on the seventh deck of the ship Thursday afternoon. The ship, a 600-foot Norwegian vessel called Höegh Xiamen was carrying used cars and was scheduled to leave Jacksonville.

Firefighters were no longer trying to extinguish the fire, just let it burn itself out -- which could take days. Water is being poured on the hull of the ship to protect the integrity of the ship.

“The upper decks of the ship continue to burn,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Vlaun said. “That top layer is basically on fire from stem to stern. If we can do two things -- keep the ship cooled and intact and afloat -- we can minimize any threat to the environment or any continued threat to the public.”

Six of the nine firefighters hurt in the blaze have been released from the hospital.

The fire seemed to escalate Friday morning, but the experts said that was expected and continued to improve through the afternoon.

“The fire is moving up through the ship,” Vlaun said. “As the fire continues to burn higher, it reached some tanks and there was a small, controlled explosion, but it did not cause any additional damage to the ship.”

Vlaun said temperatures inside the ship have reached above 1,000 degrees, but the hull never rose above 350 degrees. The Coast Guard credited JFRD’s largest fireboat with keeping the temperatures down enough to keep the ship from sinking.

John Eddy, a retired Coast Guard aviator, merchant ship captain and firefighter, said one of the biggest fears is a hull crack. Firefighters will not go back inside because it’s too dangerous.

“You’re not going to let anyone else inside, so the only thing they can do is keep the hull cooled down and let it burn itself out, and eventually it will,” Eddy said.

More than 20 members of the ship’s crew when the fire broke out were able to safely get off before the explosion occurred, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, and the blast happened with “crews inside fighting (the) fire," Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers said.

Of the firefighters hospitalized, four were treated for burns, one was taken into surgery for injuries Thursday night and another firefighter was in intensive care, News4Jax learned. Four of them were taken to the burn unit at Shands in Gainesville -- two by helicopter, two by ground transport.

Powers added that four or five of them have significant burn injuries and will be off the job for a long time. At least two will require additional surgeries and skin graphs.

“Burns take a lot time to heal," Powers said. “Please everyone, keep them in your prayers. They’ll need a lot of that.”

Once the fire is out, the Coast Guard will try to determine how it started, starting with the vehicles onboard the carrier.

“Then we will go through the entire length to figure out was there something that worked or didn’t work properly?” Vlaun said. “Obviously there were (things wrong) because their firefighting system should’ve contained this to some percent.”

Jacksonville Association of Firefighters President Randy Wyse, who said he spoke to the injured firefighters after the explosion, said they have “a long recovery ahead of them.”

“This is one of the days we end up on a something like this and it’s one of the worst things probably in a career that you’ll ever do,” Wyse said. “One of the most dangerous things we do is shipboard firefighting and we train pretty heavily at it. You know, this is every day, this could happen.”

Specialized teams from the federal government and private industry will be coming in to help battle the fire and try to determine the cause.

Others are ensuring there is no fuel leak or other environmental contamination.

The shipping company thanked the fire department in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those firefighters and their families who were injured during this response.”

Investigators are trying to determine what caused the fire.

Blount Island terminal remains open during the fire, JaxPort announced in a statement.

“We are grateful for the quick response of our partner agencies and we are praying for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department firefighters who were injured while bravely fighting the fire, the healthcare workers who are treating them and the first responders who continue to serve on the scene,” JaxPort wrote. “A safety zone has been set up around the vessel and other cargo operations at Blount Island continue uninterrupted. Anyone working at Blount Island is asked to use extreme caution due to reduced visibility in the area.”

Thor Jørgen Guttormsen, CEO of Höegh Autoliners, released a statement thanking JFRD, the Coast Guard and JaxPort involving in tackling the fire.

Unfortunately, a number of members of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department sustained injuries courageously tackling this blaze. My thoughts and the thoughts of everyone here at Höegh Autoliners, are very much with them today as we wish them a swift recovery," Guttormsen said. Jacksonville firefighters responded immediately and have worked tirelessly to control the fire. They must receive our sincere gratitude for their professional response and their sheer hard work."

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Sky 4 over burning cargo ship

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.