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A fierce blaze on a cargo ship carrying 3000 vehicles has killed one crewman and is still burning out of control off the coast of the Netherlands.

The inferno was reportedly sparked by an electric vehicle on board the ship Fremantle Highway.

The crew of 23 mostly Indian nationals initially tried to douse the flames but had to flee from the ferocious fire. One of them was killed and others were injured, with seven sailors jumping into the water, according to the captain of the Ameland lifeboat, Willard Molenaar.

Ship owner Shoei Kisen Kaisha in a statement said that the Panama-registered Fremantle Highway was underway to its final destination in Singapore when the fire broke out. Twenty-five of the 3000 vehicles on board were EVs.

The company told the NOS public broadcaster, “there is a good chance that the fire started with electric cars.”

“We are now trying to extinguish the fire in co-operation with the local authorities of (the) Netherlands, the salvor and the ship management company,” the shipping company said in a statement.

The International Maritime Organisation is planning new regulations for ships carrying electric vehicles with a growing number of ship fires blamed on the cars.

A major salvage operation has been launched but authorities fear the fire could burn for weeks and threaten nearby natural sites.

Local media reported that it was too dangerous to put firefighters aboard the ship.

“If you start filling the ship with water, you risk destabilising it and that could tip it over,” Netherlands Coast Guard spokesman Edwin Grammeman told broadcaster NOS.

“The ship is being cooled to keep it stable,” the official said.

“Only the side of the ship is being sprayed, not the deck.”

The Fremantle Highway is currently close to Ameland, one of an archipelago of ecologically sensitive islands situated in the Waddensee area just north of the Dutch mainland.

Environmental risk

The Waddensee area spanning the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a rich diversity of more than 10,000 aquatic and terrestrial species.

This included more than 140 species of fish of which some 20 spent their entire life in the tidal areas along the islands’ famous mud flats.

The area also has a large seal and porpoise population.

Should the Fremantle Highway sink, “it would be a disaster of the highest order,” the daily tabloid De Telegraaf said.

Salvage vessels were on the scene trying to put out the blaze and prevent the ship from sinking, the coastguard said.

A tug vessel has managed to attach a cable to the stricken ship to prevent it from drifting and blocking an important sailing route into Germany.

The Fremantle Highway is an 18,500-tonne car carrier ship and was sailing between Bremerhaven in Germany and Port Said in Egypt when the blaze broke out, according to the marinetraffic.com website.

‘Minimising damage’

The injured sailors, mainly from India, were taken to the northern towns of Lauwersoog and Eelde and left in the care of paramedics there.

“They all suffered from breathing problems, but none are in serious danger,” a safety official of the Drenthe region told AFP.

“The sailors were also treated for burns and broken bones,” she added. “Currently several parties including salvagers and the Dutch authorities are looking at minimising the damage as much as possible,” the Coast Guard said.

Holidaymakers enjoyed Ameland’s popular beaches on Wednesday and seemed unaffected by the drama on the ship, which could be spotted as a tiny dot on the horizon, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, an AFP correspondent said.

“It’s been there the whole day, but it’s barely been visible,” a lifeguard who asked not to be named told AFP.

Some 340 containers tumbled off one of the world’s largest container ships after a storm in the same area in early 2019, littering kilometres of pristine coastline with plastic and polystyrene.

Fires on car-carrying ships were increasingly the source of major losses, insurers said.

Last year the Felicity Ace sank of the coast of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean with some 4,000 vehicles from German car maker Volkswagen on board.

– with AFP

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By Rahul

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