Salvors battle product tanker blaze

by Hans | August 19th, 2009

NINE seafarers were missing today as salvors battled a blaze on a Formasa Plastics product tanker involved in a collision in the Malacca Strait, raising fears about safety in the busy waterway. Although there were unconfirmed local reports that the blaze on the 70,246 dwt product tanker Formasaproduct Brick had been extinguished, officials told Lloyd’s List that rescuers were continuing to tackle the blaze. The 2005-built, product tanker caught fire after it collided with the 1998-built, 73,207 dwt panamax bulker Ostende Max at 2130 hrs on Tuesday in the Malacca Strait, 20 miles off Port Dickson. Sixteen of 25 crew were able escape as a series of explosions rocked the tanker, carrying a 58,000 tonne cargo of naphtha, but nine others remain missing.

Malaysia Marine Department director general Ahmad Bin Othman told Lloyd’s List that two salvage tugs were attending to the fire and that salvage crews had managed to board the vessel and were trying to bring the blaze under control. Capt Ahmad said the only one tank on the vessel had caught fire.

Salvor Mammoet was also on the scene and involved in firefighting operations.

Capt Ahmad was, however, unable to say how long it would take to put out the blaze. Port Dickson police chief Mazlan Othman told reporters on yesterday that 16 crew members of the tanker were rescued, while the search continued for nine missing seafarers.  “A passing containership assisted in rescuing the crew members,” he said. Some of the seafarers were able to escape in liferafts while others jumped overboard to escape the flames.

 The 16 rescued crew members were said to have suffered minor injuries and were taken to a hospital in Port Dickson, with three remaining in hospital on Wednesday evening.  Malaysian authorities said there was no major pollution and the burning vessel was not a threat to shipping traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways.

Capt Ahmad said the affected cargo had burned off and evaporated in the explosions and fire onboard the tanker. An industry source agreed that a highly volatile cargo naphtha would largely evaporate in such incident.  Capt Ahmad said the tanker was outside of the Malacca Strait traffic separation scheme and as salvage crews had been able to board the vessel he believed it was under control. The product tanker was said to be stable enough to allow it to be towed back into towards the coast, he said.

Industry executives though raised concerns that with a volatile cargo like naphtha the fire could spread to other tanks causing the vessel to sink in the Malacca Strait. A salvor said it would be extremely difficult and dangerous to extinguish the fire.  The casualty also highlighted concerns, especially by the Japanese, that a major accident in the Strait could block the strategic trade artery linking east and west. The Nippon Foundation, which has helped fund aids to navigation in the Malacca Strait for over 35 years, has repeatedly warned of the impact a major casualty in the Strait could have on shipping and trade. Over 90,000 vessels transit the Strait every year, including 90% of Japanese crude oil imports.  Nippon Maritime Centre marine manager Mathew Mathai noted the number of accidents in the Strait had declined over the last decade, however great care was required in navigating the Strait.  “The depths in the traffic lanes are generally from 20 m to 40 m, and most vessels that become a casualty have a potential to cause an obstruction,” he said.  “A ship casualty involving a sinking at a critical point could put the entire traffic lane out of action for certain classes of ships, like very large crude carriers that need to use the deep water route.”

The Formosaproduct Brick was chartered by Cargill at the time of the accident and carrying naphtha from the United Arab Emirates to South Korea.  Cargill spokesman Bruce Blakemann said the company was not able to say who the cargo belonged to as the title changed at certain point within the voyage.

All crew onboard the bulker Ostende Max were safe following the collision. George Sarris, general manager of the vessel’s manager, Enterprises Shipping & Trading, said: “Everybody is fine on our side and we can only hope that the same is true for the other vessel. That is our main concern at this moment.”  The vessel has sustained damage to its bulbous bow and upper forepeak. Initial estimates were that it will need “at least 10-15 days” to be repaired at a shipyard in Malaysia, Mr Sarris said.  The local authorities were taking statements from the Ostende Max’s crew and “we are trying to cooperate in every possible way”, he added.

Steamship Mutual confirmed it is the P&I club for the Formosaproduct Brick, and that the salvors were working closely with the owners of the vessel.  David Christie, head of claims for the club’s eastern syndicate, said: “It is difficult to comment at such an early stage in the event, but firefighters have brought the blaze under control.” Norwegian mutual Gard added that it is the P&I club for the Ostende Max, although the owners’ policy limited the club to only a minority share of its subsequent portion of any claim.

Additional reporting Nigel Lowry and Jerry Frank

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