Fire intensifies on container ship off Sri Lanka

Almost a week after a container fire was discovered aboard the Perla X-Press while the ship was anchored off Colombo, Sri Lanka, the situation continues to deteriorate. Footage from the scene shows the fire has spread and engulfed much of the container ship, while crews from India and Sri Lanka at the scene report that additional cargo and oil have been found at sea. The 37,000 dwt container ship, which was handed over to its owners in February 2021, is believed to be a total loss and raising fears that it would sink and cause an environmental incident.

Efforts to fight the fire are hampered by poor weather conditions, including strong winds and rough seas due to the onset of the southwest monsoons. Initially, the crew had been fighting the fire, which is believed to have started from a reaction of chemicals in the cargo, and was assisted by the Sri Lanka Marine and Ports Authority. SMIT Salvage had also been retrained to handle the shooting and salvage.

The ship, which carries 1,486 containers, was abandoned by its crew on May 25 as the fire intensified due to worsening weather conditions. Firefighters also reported one or more explosions from aboard the ship. The vessel’s owners said that two of the 25 crew members suffered leg injuries that forced them to be transferred to a hospital and one of the crew members tested positive for COVID-19 and required isolation. The other crew are now in a quarantine facility in Colombo.

The Sri Lankan Air Force reports that its helicopters dumped 425kg of dry chemical energy into the fire this morning, but it appears to have had little effect. Indian and Sri Lankan Coast Guard vessels continue to fight the fire alongside three tugs while efforts are also being made to contain an oil slick that was detected near the vessel. The ship remains anchored off Colombo.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took to social media tonight to thank firefighters for their efforts and assure citizens that efforts were underway to safeguard the country’s coastline. He instructed the country’s Marine Environmental Protection Authority to begin taking water samples off the coast.

This came as reports of debris and containers washed ashore increased. Despite warnings from authorities to stay away from debris due to dangerous chemicals in the cargo, images surfaced of people removing debris from containers. Police have warned that investigations have begun to track down the people who collected the debris and also violated COVID-related travel restrictions.

Cargo consultants WK Webster informed clients that a LOF salvage contract was signed with professional salvage workers and General Fault was declared. Assuming some cargo had been salvaged, they warned that Salvage and Overall Average guarantees might have been required. However, recent images suggest that the cargo and likely the vessel are now a total loss. Insurers are reportedly preparing for major claims as a result of the incident.