Ten Jacksonville firefighters injured in Hoegh Xiamen blaze file lawsuit

Written by Nick Blenkey
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[U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jessica Maldonado Gonzalez]

In a suit filed in the Duval County, Florida, Circuit Court on September 1 by law firm Pajcic & Pajcic, ten Jacksonvile Fire and Rescue employees are seeking damages for injuries, including burns, suffered when they responded to the blaze that broke out June 4 on the car carrier Hoegh Xiamen (see earlier story).

All were injured in an explosion aboard the blazing ship, which was docked at the Port of Jacksonville’s Blount Island terminal.

“It was a recipe for disaster,” said attorney Curry Pajcic in describing the chaotic scene facing first responders responding to the blaze.

Named as defendants in the law suit are: Hoegh Autoliners Shipping AS; Hoegh Autoliners Management AS; Hoegh Autoliners, Inc.; Horizon Terminal Services, llc; Grimaldi Deepsea S.P.A., and SSA Marine, Inc.

According to the law firm, at the time the fire broke out, the ship was loaded with fuel and used/wrecked cars, and ready to get underway. However, the ship’s crew had turned off the Fire Alarm System, allowing a fire to start, burn, and spread unabated in the cargo decks.

When rescue arrived, they encountered a vessel belching smoke, a crew unable to speak English — and unable to communicate where the fire was or how to get to it. That forced the rescuers to go blindly onto the 600 foot burning vessel to try to find the location of the blaze as temperatures reached more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Fire is one of, if not the, most dangerous events on any ship and RO/RO ships have a recognized propensity to catch fire — especially when transporting motor vehicles, and particularly wrecked motor vehicles, which are hazardous cargo, prone to catching fire given the combination of gasoline and automotive batteries which create sparks and ignite,” says the complaint filed in the case.

The complaint also asserts that Grimaldi Group, which was operating the Hoegh Xiamen under a time charter with Hoegh Shipping and supplying the officers and crew, had experienced fires on its other RO/RO auto carrier ships and had written about the dangers of these reoccurring and dangerous automobile fires on ships — including the risks presented by car batteries.

The ship was not equipped with a water sprinkler system and there were no internal hose connections in the stairwell to assist firefighters in fighting the blaze, along with a long list of other defects and hazards, said Pajcic & Pajcic in a press release. The complaint filed in the case also cites the crew’s failure to properly utilize the CO2 system so as to extinguish the blaze before it was permitted to spread;

“As the firefighters were in a staging area in the stairwell to attack the fire, there was an explosion from within the ship, said the law firm. ‘The explosion roared down the stairwell, blasting the Firemen with continuous severe heat while they were trapped in the stairwell of the burning ship.”

The heat from the explosion and the power of the blast, severely burned the faces, hands, and bodies of the firefighters, blasted several firefighters out of the 5th deck doorway and over cars, throwing others down flights of stairs, snapping bones, tearing flesh, and causing severe physical and emotional trauma as the first responders believed they were going to be trapped inside the ship and burned to death, says the firm.

Firefighter Shawn O’Shell, a 17-year firefighter veteran, described the scene on the ship as a living hell. “I heard a God-awful growl, and then felt the ship shaking, and then the explosion … it was like a blast furnace … being trapped behind the engine of an F-16 blasting into you, extreme heat that keeps going, and going, and going, and you have nowhere to go. I was trapped, I thought, ‘I’m going to die on this ship’ … my thoughts flashed to my wife, daughter and son, and what they would do….”

The Hoegh Xiamen continued to smolder and burn for the next eight days. Unable to re-enter the ship after the explosion, JFRD continuously sprayed water on the outside of the ship to maintain its integrity and prevent an environmental disaster while the inside of the ship and its combustible cargo continued to burn.

Fire left interior of ship completely burned out [Image: Pajcic and Pajcic]

According to the lawsuit , the defendants were negligent in failing to maintain and outfit the ship in a reasonably safe condition, as well as many other failures that endangered the lives of the rescue team.

Curry Pajcic described his clients as true American heroes. “They ran into the storm, a storm created by an irresponsible company, an ill-equipped crew, and dangerous cargo, that was a recipe for disaster … especially when the ship’s crew made the willful, intentional decision to turn off the alarm system at a time and place when they knew they had dangerous combustible cargo. The JFRD averted a major disaster to the St. Johns River and Blount Island, but the ten firemen will forever live with the physical and emotional scars caused by the Defendants’ negligence.”

The Hoegh Xiamen was subsequently declared a constructive total loss and on August 30 was towed out of Jacksonville, presumably headed for demolition.

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