On June 4, 2020, about 1530 eastern daylight time, the crew of the 600-foot-long, Norwegian-flagged roll-on/roll-off vehicle carrier Höegh Xiamen were preparing to depart the Blount Island Horizon Terminal in Jacksonville, Florida, en route to Baltimore, Maryland, when they saw smoke coming from a ventilation housing for one of the exhaust trunks that ran from deck 12 (the weather deck) to one of the cargo decks.
Crewmembers discovered a fire on deck 8, which had been loaded with used vehicles. The crew attempted to fight the fire but were repelled by heavy smoke. Shoreside fire department teams from the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department arrived at 1603 and relieved the crew. The captain, after consulting with and receiving concurrence from the fire department, had carbon dioxide from the vessel’s fixed fire-extinguishing system released into decks 7 and 8, and the crew then evacuated from the Höegh Xiamen.
The fire continued to spread to the higher cargo decks and the accommodations. Shoreside firefighters entered cargo decks with fire hoses, and nine firefighters were subsequently injured, five of them seriously, in an explosion. Responders subsequently adopted a defensive strategy, cooling external exposed surfaces. The fire was extinguished over a week later on June 12.
The Höegh Xiamen and its cargo of 2,420 used vehicles were declared a total loss valued at $40 million, and in August 2020, the vessel was towed to Turkey to be recycled.
The fire on board the Höegh Xiamen began in the aft portion of deck 8 before spreading to decks 7, 9, and 10/11 and was likely caused by an electrical arc or component fault in one of the used vehicles loaded on deck 8. Many of the vehicles that had been loaded over the previous 2 days did not have properly disconnected and secured batteries, which increased the risk of electrical arcing and component faults. During loading operations, both the loading personnel and vessel crew missed opportunities to address these hazards.
The transportation of used vehicles, such as those that were loaded on vessels like the Höegh Xiamen, is currently excepted from Hazardous Materials Regulations when a vessel has a stowage area specifically designed and approved for carrying vehicles. We found that used vehicles are often damaged and present an elevated risk of fire. We believe that greater inspection, oversight, and enforcement are needed to reduce this risk.
The investigation showed that the detection of the fire was delayed because the operating company did not have procedures to minimize the amount of time that their vessels’ fire detection systems remained deactivated after loading evolutions. Additionally, the shoreside fire department’s response to the accident site was delayed because the Höegh Xiamen’s 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.
We determined that the probable cause of the fire aboard the vehicle carrier Höegh Xiamen was Grimaldi’s and SSA Atlantic’s ineffective oversight of longshoremen, which did not identify that Grimaldi’s vehicle battery securement procedures were not being followed, resulting in an electrical fault from an improperly disconnected battery in a used vehicle on cargo deck 8. Contributing to the delay in the detection of the fire was the crew not immediately reactivating the vessel’s fire detection system after the completion of loading. Contributing to the extent of the fire was the master’s decision to delay the release of the carbon dioxide fixed fire-extinguishing system.
As a result of this investigation, we made recommendations to the companies involved to improve oversight of vehicle loading as well as training of personnel involved in battery securement for used and damaged vehicles. We also made recommendations to federal agencies to improve regulations for vehicle carriers that transport used vehicles. Finally, we made recommendations to the vessel’s operator to revise their procedures involving the deactivation of fire detection systems and to ensure emergency contact information is immediately available for bridge teams.