Indonesian ropax blaze highlights problem of car-deck fires

Concerns over combusting vehicles endangering the safety of ro-pax ferries are being re-ignited as preliminary reports suggest a vehicle fire might have been the cause of a blaze on an Indonesian ferry two weeks ago.

While Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee has yet to release any formal report on the cause of a fire that broke out onboard the 15,400-gt ferry Mutiara Persada III (built 1991) on 9 April, local media reports claim that initial indications from investigators point to the blaze starting in one of the cars on the vessel’s vehicle deck.

The Mutiara Persada III, which is operated by ferry company PT Atosim Lampung Pelayaran, was en route from Tanjong Priok to Panjang with 76 passengers when a fire broke out on the car deck. Passengers were evacuated safely, while the crew eventually extinguished the blaze. The ship subsequently returned to Tanjung Priok, where the damage is being assessed.

Reports so far indicate that the damage was mostly confined to several cars that were destroyed.

The Mutiara Persada III fire is the latest in a string of vehicle deck fires that have struck ropax ferries and ro-ro vessels in recent years.

Last year, DNV GL highlighted its growing concern over fires onboard ropax vessels, noting that no less than 18 such incidents were recorded between 2005 and 2016.

While there is little that can be done to stop cars from self-combusting, classification societies have called for improved vessel designs, especially regarding fire fighting and containment capabilities on vehicle decks.

DNV GL was especially concerned with vessels built with open-sided upper vehicle decks, where well-ventilated fires under a tight steel deck reflected heat and accumulated fire gases and were difficult to contain using carbon-dioxide systems.

Critics of the design have pointed out that although these spaces are supposedly protected by deluge systems, when such systems fail, as was the case with the October 2010 fire on the 17,200-gt ropax Lisco Gloria (built 2003), the December 2014 fire on the 26,900-gt ropax Norman Atlantic (built 2009) and the April 2015 fire of the 26,000-gt ropax Sorrento (built 2003), the fires proved impossible to contain and the ships were totally destroyed.

The Japanese-built, Mutiara Persada III has fully enclosed vehicle decks, which is likely to have aided the crew in extinguishing the blaze quickly. The vessel is expected to return to service after repairs have been made.