A Fire Is Still Burning on Board a Car-Carrying Cargo Ship

It's near a sensitive Dutch bird habitat.

Kustwacht Nederland/Coast Guard Netherlands via AP

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A cargo ship packed with nearly 3,000 cars was still ablaze Thursday close to a world-renowned bird habitat off the Dutch coast as firefighters and salvage crews waited for the flames to subside before attempting to board the vessel.

The Fremantle Highway was sailing from the German port of Bremerhaven to Singapore when it caught fire shortly before midnight Tuesday about 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of the Dutch island of Ameland, sparking fears of an environmental disaster.

One crew member died and others were injured in the early hours of Wednesday. The entire crew has been evacuated from the ship.

The Dutch coast guard said "the situation at the moment is stable." The agency planned to fly experts over the ship late in the morning Thursday to take stock of its condition. The cause of the fire hasn't yet been established.

The Japanese-owned ship carrying 2,857 cars, including 25 electric cars, is close to a chain of islands and the World Heritage-listed Wadden Sea, an important habitat for migratory birds.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has warned about the possible dangers of electric vehicle battery fires, a hazard that stems from thermal runaway, a chemical reaction that causes uncontrolled battery temperature and pressure increases.

The burning vessel has drifted westwards toward the island of Terschelling and is slowly heading away from Borkum, the westernmost of the German East Frisian islands. Germany sent a ship that doused the sides of the Fremantle Highway with water on Wednesday to keep it as cool as possible.

The coast guard said that was no longer happening "because unnecessary amounts of water must be prevented from getting on board. This endangers the stability of the ship." It said the fire was burning more intensely when the ship was cooled on Wednesday.

German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke said that she couldn't rule out the possibility of the burning ship sinking.

"A totally normal car transport by sea could turn into an environmental catastrophe of unknown proportions," Lemke said in a statement. "This fills me with deep concern."

She said that if the ship sinks, "large quantities of fuel and other environmentally harmful pollutants from the cargo ship's load could contaminate the sensitive ecosystem of the North Sea extensively. The unique Wadden Sea national park is in serious danger. That must be prevented with all our resources."

The Netherlands on Wednesday sent a ship equipped with special booms to contain oil spills to the area as a precaution.

Infrastructure and Waterways Minister Mark Harbers said in a letter to lawmakers that if there is a leak the "current and anticipated wind and wave direction for the coming days are such that any contamination will spread to the north, and therefore not to the Wadden Islands."

The fire in the North Sea isn't the first to break out in a car-carrying cargo ship.

Earlier this month, it took firefighters nearly a week to extinguish a similar blaze in a car transport ship in Newark, New Jersey. Two firefighters were killed and five others were injured battling the flames.

In March 2022, a large cargo vessel carrying cars from Germany to the United States sank in the mid-Atlantic, 13 days after a fire broke out on board. The Felicity Ace sank about 400 kilometers (250 miles) off Portugal's Azores Islands as it was being towed after a salvage team had put out the fire.


Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.

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