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Salvage tug boats spray water onto the container ship Zim Kingston after the crew were evacuated due to a fire on board, in Victoria, on Oct. 24.KEVIN LIGHT/Reuters

Three weeks after a fire engulfed containers aboard the MV Zim Kingston, the huge ship remains at anchor off Victoria, waiting to secure a facility willing to accept its rotting, burned and storm-tossed cargo.

When the ship’s captain called the Canadian Coast Guard for help with a fire, the Atlantic Raven, Canada’s flagship emergency tow vessel for British Columbia’s south coast, was 170 nautical miles away. It arrived 18 hours later. While that help was on the way, Coast Guard officials urged the captain to abandon ship, but he refused, remaining aboard with four officers – even as thick, black smoke enveloped the wheelhouse – to co-ordinate a trio of firefighting tugs.

Those efforts paid off: The Zim Kingston and most of its cargo were saved. But it will be a nightmare to unload, and the undamaged consumer goods still aboard will be in limbo for some time yet.

“There’s no urgency here,” said JJ Brickett, the Coast Guard commander for the Zim Kingston incident. “The urgency is commercial. This is stable, and the longer it stays there, the more stable it gets.”

The fire took a week to put out, partly due to the hazardous materials in some of the containers. In terms of pollution control, officials believe the worst is over – other than the fact the cargo lost in the Pacific in a storm just prior to the fire has not been found. Only four of the 109 containers that went overboard have washed ashore.

The ship picked up cargo in China and South Korea, destined for the port of Vancouver. The trip should have taken about two weeks, but it is now at five and counting. It is not ideal for commerce. “I’m sure that the mango pies in the container that split open are done,” Mr. Brickett said. The rotting matter has set off gas alarms that were installed for the protection of the salvage crew. “Nobody is eating those.”

When the ship finds a berth, and when the weather promises to be calm, the Zim Kingston will leave its emergency anchorage at Constance Bank. The crew will be joined on board by a salvage team hired by the ship’s owners to monitor the stability of the containers during transit and to fight any new fires that might ignite. The ship will be escorted by two tugs as well as the Atlantic Raven, and a U.S. Coast Guard ship will be on hand if the ship enters American waters as it makes its way around the southern tip of Vancouver Island. A marine mammal watch boat will lead the convoy, and an environmental monitoring vessel will follow.

This week the ship’s owners approached the Port of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island with a proposal to unload – Vancouver has balked at offering a berth. Most of the 2,000 large steel containers are intact, but dozens were tossed around like Lego blocks by the Oct. 22 storm. The situation is complicated by the toxic remains of everyday household goods that went up in flames.

The burned containers include some labelled hazardous materials and others that just are inherently dangerous. “It’s like a house fire: There’s always toxics – melted plastics and that sort of stuff,” said Mr. Brickett. “Even something that isn’t identified as a dangerous good is going to be nasty when it burns.”

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A tugboat pours water on the Zim Kingston on Oct. 25.CANADIAN COAST GUARD/Reuters

The Transportation Safety Board has launched a Class 3 investigation into the incident, an intensive probe that usually takes more than a year to complete. The owners of the Zim Kingston, Danaos Shipping Co., based in Greece, declined to respond to questions this week pending that investigation.

The aftermath of the fire underscores just how dangerous it was for those on the front lines. Public broadcasts between the Coast Guard and the ships involved were recorded from marine radio channels on Oct. 23 and 24 and provide a glimpse of the effort.

After losing part of its cargo, the Zim Kingston made its way to the emergency anchorage eight kilometres off the shore of Victoria. The captain called the Victoria Coast Guard for help with the fire at about 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 23 – a little more than 12 hours after reporting the ship had lost containers at sea.

The first tug to arrive was the Firebrand, out of the nearby Canadian naval base, about 45 minutes later. The Firebrand has three water cannons and can spray fire suppressant foam, but it was under instructions not to deploy any water on the fire.

With the fire spreading, the captain asked to evacuate 10 members of his crew, using a ladder down the side of the hull to the safety of a Coast Guard lifeboat, the Cape Calvert.

“How about vaccination? Are people vaccinated against COVID-19?” a Coast Guard official responded. “Everyone is in good health,” the captain assured him.

Smoke from the fire was growing, and when the captain asked to send six more crew members ashore, there was a note of urgency from the lifeboat’s master: “I want all the remaining people ready to go when I come back in. I’m not sitting around in that smoke waiting for you, okay?”

Just before 5 p.m., the Coast Guard urged the captain and his officers to abandon ship. “You have been advised to evacuate the entire vessel. All crew members and captain included.”

“Negative, sir,” the Zim Kingston’s captain replied. “I just want to evacuate crew I don’t need because we expect the tugs to come to our vessel to proceed and continue the firefighting.”

The Seaspan Raven, a tugboat out of Vancouver, arrived shortly after 8 p.m. Its captain explained to the Zim Kingston that he was under orders to cool the hull just below the fire. The ship’s manifest showed some of the containers were filled with hazardous substances – potassium amyl xanthate and thiourea dioxide. Salvage experts advised it would be dangerous to spray the fire directly, so the strategy was to prevent the fire from spreading.

The Seaspan Raven’s captain, an expert in local waters, had more bad news for the Zim Kingston. The ship at anchor was now at the mercy of the wind and tides, and matters were about to get worse. “The tide is going to turn here soon and you are going to turn and face west. At which point the smoke is going to be blowing back on the wheelhouse. Are your crew going to be okay – or do you think you might want to think about getting off that ship?”

The captain of the cargo ship politely demurred again. “Thank you for the information,” he replied.

Just past midnight, the tugs Tender and Trader of shipping company Maersk were on the scene, co-ordinating over marine radio channels with the crew of the Seaspan Raven. The Maersk offshore tugs just happened to be docked in Victoria at the time and would provide critical firefighting power. Over the radio, the tug operators described thick, black smoke and waves of heat coming from the containers, engulfing the bridge.

The Coast Guard dispatcher, overhearing this, contacted the Zim Kingston again. “Will your plan change to keep the people on board if the smoke continues to the accommodation?”

The captain was still on the bridge, directing the firefighting. “We are just five people on board, we stay, okay, and I will inform you if something changes.”

The nature of the fire was changing. At 1:10 a.m. Sunday, the captain told the firefighting tug crews it was time to alter tactics. The fire was in bay 14, a block of about 100 containers. Most of those contained dry goods, he said, not hazardous materials. After more than 12 hours, the fire was not under control, and now the wind was picking up, threatening to make things worse.

“I think if we don’t throw water there, we are not going to do anything,” the captain told the tug crews. “One effort, all together, okay, to aim directly to the fire.”

Finally, the tugs aimed their water cannons directly at the containers on fire. The Seaspan Raven’s captain, watching the result, sounded discouraged: “It’s going to be a while before this thing goes out.”

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A shipping container that washed ashore on Cape Scott, B.C., approx. 400km from the MV Zim Kingston.Handout

In 2018, the federal government awarded a three-year contract for the lease of the Atlantic Eagle and Atlantic Raven to cover B.C.’s coastal waters with emergency response capacity. It was part of the Ocean Protections Plan, designed to allay concerns about the increased oil tanker traffic that will accompany the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. In the wake of the Zim Kingston fire, Ottawa has promised to extend those contracts.

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