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British bulk carrier carrying explosive fertiliser on fire off Canaries

22 August 2017

According to Spanish sources, a British bulk cargo carrier owned by the UK’s Bibby Line Ltd is on fire and without power off the Canary Islands with more than 42,000 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertiliser in its hold. Tugs and salvage vessels are in attendance, and its last reported position was 150 kilometres south of El Hierro Island, the westernmost in the archipelago.

MV Cheshire pictured August 27, 2017. Image: Bibby Line Ltd
MV Cheshire pictured August 27, 2017. Image: Bibby Line Ltd

Bibby said there had been 'thermal decomposition' of the ammonium nitrate on board its vessel, the MV Cheshire. In a statement it said: “The temperature in Hold 4 rose to a high enough level to cause damage to the hatch cover and the plan is to use the assistance of a specialist salvage company to provide resources to cool the affected cargo and consequently, professional salvors."

A spokesman for Bibby told Spanish news agency Efe that the salvage vessels had a team of eight Dutch technicians specialising in this type of work and two company engineers familiar with the vessel, and that they would go aboard as soon as it was safe to do so.

The salvage team had not yet boarded the burning ship at day break on August 19, according to the Canary News, and were unlikely to do so in the immediate future because of the toxic fumes billowing from the stricken vessel.

The tug Red Sea Fos, hired by salvage specialists Resolve Marine, is escorting the vessel at an unspecified distance, assisted by the Spanish rescue tug Miguel De Cervantes. Two more tugs have been sent to assist, the VB Hispania and the Moroccan-flagged port tug Jacques 2.

The fire on the Cheshire, which was taking the fertiliser from Norway to Thailand, started on August 13 and a day later its 24 crew were taken off the vessel by Spanish search and rescue helicopters after it was denied entry to Las Palmas harbour.

Other than the toxic fumes being given off, there is also the danger of a major explosion due to the large quantity of ammonium nitrate on board.

Marine tracking website called the Cheshire a “floating bomb”, and said the salvors could not use water or foam on the fire for fear of setting off an explosion. The website said vessels were being warned about the explosion risk and advised to give the vessel a wide berth.

Update: On August 27, Bibby Line Ltd said the fertiliser cargo on board the MV Cheshire had finally stopped smouldering more than two weeks after its crew was forced to abandon ship due to toxic fumes.

The company said that Spanish authorities have permitted salvors to take the 56,600 tonne vessel closer to shore in Gran Canaria as salvage operations continue for the stricken ship.

The Cheshire is located about 50 nautical miles southeast of Gran Canaria and is under tow by the tug Red Sea Fos. At the time of update, Bibby said it had received permission to bring the vessel closer to shore but no closer than 12 nautical miles, although a plan to board the vessel was called off again because of inclement weather.

It is now being reported that all 5 cargo holds have cooled down and at present, there are no fumes emanating from the vessel. The fire is believed to have started due to a chemical reaction in the fertiliser that caused it to overheat.

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