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The fire from a plane of the Dutch coast guard: The freighter is stable

Photo: Coast Guard Netherlands / dpa

The burning freighter off the Dutch coast will no longer be cooled for the time being. The danger was too great that too much seawater would get into the ship, the Dutch coast guard said. As a result, the freighter "Fremantle Highway" could become unstable. Fireboats had cooled the sides of the ship with seawater.

Since Wednesday night, the fire has been raging on the approximately 200-meter-long cargo ship. The fire could last for days, said the spokesman for the coast guard. Salvage experts are now waiting until the temperatures on the ship have dropped. However, the freighter is stable, the spokesman said.

The ship must not capsize or break apart under any circumstances. Then there is a threat of an "environmental catastrophe of unprecedented proportions," warned Germany's Environment Minister Steffi Lemke. Then "large quantities of fuel and other environmentally harmful pollutants from the cargo of the freighter could pollute the sensitive ecosystem of the North Sea on a large scale". The unique Wadden Sea National Park would then be "in serious danger". According to the Federal Ministry for the Environment, there are 1600 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and a further 200 tonnes of marine diesel on board.

"We are watching the weather and drift very closely," the spokesman for the German Central Command for Maritime Emergencies told SPIEGEL. In the event that pollutants were to get into the water, they could "react quickly if necessary". Operations to deal with water pollution are regularly practiced, says Benedikt Spangardt.

He could not anticipate possible scenarios of how the Dutch coast guard could proceed, Spangardt said. The situation is too complex to be judged from the outside.

The Central Command for Maritime Emergencies had already offered support to the Netherlands during the night. A German emergency tugboat was then used during the extinguishing work, but has since been replaced and is on standby, according to the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies. Environment Minister Lemke had also assured the neighbours that "Germany will provide everything that can help".

Conjectures about the cause of the fire

Meanwhile, the Dutch broadcaster RTL published excerpts of the radio traffic of the rescue forces on its homepage, which could provide clues to the cause of the accident. "The fire started in the battery of an electric car," it said, according to RTL.

According to the shipping company, almost 3800 cars were on board the ship, including 25 electric ones. "It looks like an electric car has also exploded," RTL said on the radio. However, the explosion is not said to have damaged the ship.

Burning electric cars are a challenge for firefighters. "Below deck, fires on car transporters – just like on container ships, by the way – are extinguished with CO₂," says Captain Uwe-Peter Schieder, safety expert at the German Insurance Association (GDV). The idea behind this is that the CO₂ displaces the oxygen or dilutes it to such an extent that the fire suffocates without oxygen. However, this does not work with burning lithium-ion batteries, as they produce the oxygen themselves during burning. From the point of view of Allianz insurer AGCS, fires in electric vehicles are "treacherous because they are difficult to extinguish and can spontaneously re-ignite".

Electric cars don't burn more often than combustion engines

However, the risk of fire is not greater with e-cars. "According to everything we know from the statistics of motor vehicle insurers, electric cars do not burn more often than combustion engines," says GDV expert Schieder.

Risks from the transport of electric cars on ships had come into focus worldwide at the latest due to the accident of the "Felicity Ace". In February 2022, electric vehicles had apparently caught fire on the car transporter. The fire could not be extinguished at that time, the entire ship sank off the Azores. However, it has not been proven whether the battery of an electric car was the source of the fire in the case of the "Fremantle Highway".

The Panamanian-flagged ship had left Bremerhaven and was to continue to Singapore. The 23 people on board, including 21 crew members from India, had to leave the freighter quickly after the fire broke out. One person was killed. The 22 survivors were slightly injured, according to Dutch sources, and are safe.