Coconut charcoal may have caused weeks-long fire on Halifax-bound container ship

A stubborn fire that burned for weeks on a Halifax-bound container ship in the North Atlantic over a year ago may have started when charcoal made from coconut ignited inside a mislabeled container.

Those are the findings of a report by German authorities into the Jan. 3, 2019, fire that broke out on the cargo deck of the Yantian Express, which is registered in Hamburg and owned by international shipper Hapag-Lloyd.

The fire burned for three weeks before it was finally fully extinguished. Originally destined to arrive in Halifax on Jan. 4, the ship was finally towed to port in the Bahamas.

Investigators kept a close eye on many of the damaged containers as they were off-loaded that February, according to the report released last week by Germany’s Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation.

One of the badly damaged containers being unloaded from the Yantian Express in the Bahamas. (Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation)

After further examination and lab testing it was determined a container labelled as coconut pellets in fact held coconut charcoal or pyrochar, which the report said is commonly used as fuel for shishas or water pipes.

“Pyrochar or vegetable char, produced by means of coconut shell pyrolysis, have properties comparable to wood-based charcoal,” the report stated.

“The examinations allow for the conclusion that the fire could have been caused by self-igniting of the coconut charcoal.”

Small chunks of pyrochar can be seen in the rubble next to this damaged container on the Yantian Express. (Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation)

The investigation revealed the container carrying the coconut charcoal was put on board the Yantian Express in Vung Tau, Vietnam, on Dec. 10, 2018, after leaving Ho Chi Minh City three days earlier.

No one was injured in the intense fire, which broke out while the ship was about 1,900 kilometres from Halifax. Twenty-two crew members were evacuated in two different stages.

Other containers in the same area were heavily damaged, however. Containers with wooden furniture, tires, polypropylene grocery bags and women’s bras were among those completely burned out.

“Some of the containers exhibited an extremely high degree of destruction due to the effects of fire, which in some cases caused the overall structure to collapse during unloading,” the report stated.

“Cargo was no longer present in some instances because the container floors were burnt and the fire debris fell out when the containers were lifted.”

After four months in the Bahamas, the ship finally arrived in Halifax.

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