Tug arrives to help fight fire, tow container ship bound for Halifax

A tugboat from St. John's has reached a large Halifax-bound container ship that has been burning for days, with plans to tow it about 1,500 kilometres to the Nova Scotia port.

Fire on Yantian Express has been burning since Thursday

The Yantian Express at Halifax's Fairview Cove container terminal in 2015. (Mac Mackay/Shipfax)

A tugboat from St. John's has reached a large Halifax-bound container ship that has been burning for days, with plans to tow it the vessel about 1,500 kilometres to the Nova Scotia port.

International shipping company Hapag-Lloyd said the crew of the Maersk Mobiliser will be helping to extinguish the fire on the 320-metre​ Yantian Express. Detected Thursday, it started in cargo on the ship's forward deck and spread to other containers.

Hapag-Lloyd spokesperson Tim Seifert said the company is not speculating on the cause of the fire or the materials that are burning. He said it's still unclear how extensive the damage is. 

The plan is for the 95-metre Maersk Mobiliser to tow the disabled ship, he said. There is still no timeline for when it will arrive in Halifax.

There have been no reported injuries. This weekend, all 23 crew members were moved onto the Smit Nicobar, a 71-metre offshore support tug from Belgium that arrived on the scene Friday night. It's equipped with fire monitors, a type of water cannon that can pump large volumes of water to extinguish fires.

The Yantian Express was travelling from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Coast guard officials in Boston received a call for help early Friday.

Mary Brooks, a Dalhousie University professor who has researched and consulted in the field of marine transport, said shipping companies do frequent fire drills to prepare for this type of scenario.

"They plan for the unforeseen. They really are alone out at sea and have to just depend on what they can do themselves," she said.

Books said dealing with hazardous material is one of the risks of the industry and one that's taken seriously. She said shipping lines often try to educate and train exporters and manufacturers on how to pack container boxes safely to reduce the likelihood of problems at sea.

How shipping companies load their boats

Shipping lines put together their loading plan for cargo based on information — such as weight or the type of material — from the manufacturer. They have staff with expertise in hazardous materials and how they react under different conditions, such as airtight containers with little oxygen, she said.

"The real problem is one never quite knows everything in every box because the boxes are sealed when they're delivered," said Brooks. "So if material isn't packed right or it self combusts, you are stuck with whatever has been put on."

The Halifax Port Authority said it has an emergency plan for scenarios involving fires on ships, and that includes co-ordinating with other agencies.

Container ship headed for Halifax in 2001 had fire

The Yantian Express isn't the first time a Halifax-bound container vessel has dealt with a fire. In 2001, the Transportation Safety Board determined carbon pellets stored in plastic on wooden pallets ignited in a box on the Japanese container ship Kitano.

The ship's crew first noticed smoke when it was near Chebucto Head, N.S. No one was hurt and the ship was undamaged. A salvage tug and fire crews extinguished the fire after it was anchored in the Halifax harbour.

With files from the Canadian Press and Elizabeth McMillan