Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on June 1, 2021.

‘Worst Nightmare  

Sri Lankan cargo ship blaze highlights dangers, challenges involved in fighting fires on large marine vessels—especially those carrying hazardous materials


A fire that engulfed a cargo ship for 13 days off the coast of Sri Lanka has been put out, but experts say the country now faces an environmental catastrophe as a result of the blaze. The incident also serves as a stark reminder of the technical challenges and destructive potential posed by fires on large marine vessels, especially when those ships are carrying hazardous materials.

According to the Sri Lanka Navy, the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl was carrying nearly 1,500 containers full of hazardous materials, including 25 tons of highly toxic and corrosive nitric acid, when it caught fire nearly two weeks ago about 10 miles offshore. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, though a leak of nitric acid from one of the ship’s containers prior to the fire has been reported. Some of those containers fell into the ocean as the ship burned. On Wednesday, officials said efforts are now underway to tow the remains of the ship as far out to sea as possible as the ship, along with the rest of the containers, starts to sink.

The environmental impact of the blaze is already being felt. Miles of normally pristine sandy beaches along the island nation’s western coast are covered in piles of plastic and other debris, and dead fish have started to wash ashore. 

Experts say the key to avoiding such calamity is to contain ship fires as quickly as possible. “Once a fire starts anywhere on a ship, the first few minutes are key to extinguishing it,” said Lawrence Russell, an engineer at NFPA who specializes in marine hazards. “With a small crew that can be difficult. They may not be well trained, or they may not have the resources to fight the fire. On a cargo ship, for example, if the fire starts in one container buried in a stack of other containers, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for the crew to effectively attack the fire at the source. There are firefighting training requirements for ship crews, but realistic, effective drills are needed for the crew to maintain this knowledge and proficiency, especially since they are not trained firefighters. A fire at sea is a seafarer’s worst nightmare.”

Familiar foe 

According to media and government reports, firefighters from India and even Europe assisted with the effort to extinguish the massive blaze burning aboard the MV X-Press Pearl. 

The India Coast Guard (ICG) reported on Twitter that firefighting efforts were “relentless” and continued night and day. ICG, which sent three firefighting boats to the scene, said efforts required “precision maneuvering in close quarters,” and posted videos of its firefighting boats spraying water onto a mangled, smoldering MV X-Press Pearl, whose melted containers looked as if they were on the verge of collapsing into the sea. 

For those familiar with fires on large marine vessels, the large-scale firefighting efforts and time it took to extinguish the Sri Lanka blaze likely came as no surprise. Shipboard fires are notoriously challenging beasts, as was described in the cover story for the September/October 2019 issue of NFPA Journal, “Close Quarters.” 

“The way ships are constructed present huge challenges, the way it traps heat and affects fire growth,” Forest Herndon, a 38-year veteran of the marine firefighting industry who owns a New Jersey–based company that teaches land-based firefighters how to fight fires on ships, said in the article. “Firefighters could be ascending steep, slippery ladders or trying to walk on decks that heat up to the point where their feet are burning. Shipboard fires burn a lot hotter than fires in land-based structures, and you don’t have the ability to ventilate these fires, so your methods of addressing them have to change.” 

Future risk

In the case of the fire aboard the MV X-Press Pearl, the materials onboard also seemed to play a large role in the fire’s scale and difficulty—an issue that could grow worse in the coming years as global shipping trends favor the transport of more chemicals. 

According to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, over roughly the past two decades, the amount of chemicals being transported by marine vessels worldwide in terms of ton-miles, or one ton of freight carried over one mile, has increased by about 88 percent; similarly, the amount of gas has increased by over 190 percent, and the amount of oil by about 30 percent. 

A Wall Street Journal article published in 2019 said “ship operators, insurers and regulators increasingly are focusing on the chemicals, batteries, and other goods that can trigger or feed a fire.” 

“The potential damage from such incidents has grown,” the newspaper continued, “as carriers have moved to ever-larger vessels, concentrating more containers on a smaller number of ships. That can raise the chances that dangerous goods are onboard and the rush to handle many thousands of boxes at port call may raise the chances that poorly packaged dangerous goods can slip through.”

That appears to be the case with the MV X-Press Pearl. According to the Washington Post, a spokesman for the company that owns the MV X-Press Pearl said crew members noticed that a poorly packaged container of nitric acid was leaking prior to the fire, but requests to offload the leaking container at ports in India and Qatar were denied. “The [reason] given was there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking acid,” the company said in a statement, according to the Post.

The regions of the globe in which chemicals are being loaded onto ships has become a major problem, said Russell. “Containers may be loaded in countries with lax health and safety regulations or standards,” he said. “The cargo documentation accompanying the shipping container that is provided to the vessel owner or operator may be poor or inaccurate.” 

Even in more developed countries like the United States, there are ships constantly coming and going with potentially dangerous cargo from all over the world, and experts say many seaside communities lack the firefighting expertise to deal with a fire burning on a large marine vessel in or near their port. “We’ve started to see ships that are a lot bigger than anything we’re used to,” Herndon said in the 2019 NFPA Journal article. “These vessels are huge, and I don’t think any major city, much less a smaller one, is truly prepared.”

That’s why experts say it’s critical for fire departments and other public safety organizations to familiarize themselves with educational resources related to marine firefighting—such as NFPA 1005, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Marine Firefighting for Land-Based Firefighters; NFPA 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments that Respond to Marine Vessel Fires; and NFPA 307, Standard for the Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals, Piers, and Wharves, which includes annex material on marine firefighting

“The courses are being developed, and NFPA has standards,” Herndon said. “We just have to get firefighters to take the trainings and use those education materials.”

ANGELO VERZONI is an associate editor for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni