Skip to main content

Ship that spilled 40 containers off Olympic Peninsula catches fire. Spills 2 more

Firefighting tugs hosed down a smoldering cargo ship anchored off Victoria, British Columbia, on Sunday, more than 24 hours after some of its spontaneously combustible payload went up in flames.

The Vancouver-bound M/V Zim Kingston caught fire Saturday, sending up a plume of toxic smoke, after spilling 40 shipping containers west of the Olympic Peninsula the day before, then anchoring off Victoria.

Canadian officials say 10 shipping containers, two of them carrying a spontaneously combustible hazardous material, were burning Saturday afternoon, with smoke visible from the Washington and British Columbia sides of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At least two more containers tumbled overboard as the ship burned.

RELATED: Cargo ship spills 40 shipping containers off Olympic Peninsula

The Canadian Coast Guard said Saturday the fire was “expelling toxic gas” and warned mariners to avoid a 1-mile radius around the vessel, later increasing that radius to 2 miles.

By Sunday afternoon, Greek shipping company Danaos said in an email that its ship’s fire “appears to have been contained,” though the containers continued to generate extreme heat.

As the fire intensified Saturday, the Canadian Coast Guard clashed with the ship’s captain over how to proceed.

“You have been advised to evacuate the entire vessel,” a coast guard official told the captain over marine-band radio. “All crew members and captain included. Over.”

“Negative, sir,” the captain replied. “I will evacuate only a few crew members now, OK, and I will leave a standby crew aboard. I want to evacuate crew that I don’t need because we expect tugs to come to our vessel to proceed and continue the firefighting.”

“We know that,” the official replied. “Tugs will be proceeding, but this is all arranged, and the advice is that you abandon, completely abandon, including all crew and captain.”

Instead, five members of the 21-person crew remained on board to fight the fire, though they and three firefighting tugs had to avoid spraying water directly on the burning containers.

"Due to the nature of chemicals onboard the container ship, applying water directly to the fire is not an option,” the Canadian Coast Guard said on social media.

Two of the burning containers were carrying a total of 57 tons of a hazardous material called potassium amyl xanthate. The substance is used in large volumes in mining, a $9 billion industry in British Columbia.

"Contact of solid xanthate with moist air has resulted in ignition," according to chemical safety information from a Canadian chemical wholesaler.

"Emits a flammable gas upon contact with water or water vapour. Can decompose at high temperatures forming toxic gases."

When potassium amyl xanthate is heated or decomposes, it produces carbon disulfide, another hazardous, explosive substance.

The firefighting strategy was to keep areas next to the fire cool but let the blazing containers burn themselves out.

By Sunday afternoon, Canadian Coast Guard Commander JJ Brickett hailed the “heroic efforts” of the crew.

caption: The Zim Kingston engulfed in smoke Saturday afternoon off Victoria, British Columbia
Enlarge Icon
The Zim Kingston engulfed in smoke Saturday afternoon off Victoria, British Columbia
courtesy Todd Jamison

Incident commander Zachary Scher said the province of British Columbia was monitoring air quality on Vancouver Island near the fire.

“There’s no concern to islanders from the fire,” Scher said.

The Zim Kingston is anchored about 4 miles from Victoria and 15 miles from Port Angeles, Washington.

caption: Shipping containers on the M/V Zim Kingston burn in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off Victoria, British Columbia, on Saturday.
Enlarge Icon
Shipping containers on the M/V Zim Kingston burn in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off Victoria, British Columbia, on Saturday.
U.S. Coast Guard

The ship laden with containers stacked up to six high was heading from Busan, South Korea, to Vancouver when it hit rough seas, listed to one side, and spilled 40 containers about 40 miles west of the Olympic Peninsula’s Cape Flattery early Friday morning.

“It's not unusual for a ship to encounter rogue waves that would create a list, port and starboard,” Brickett said.

Those 40 shipping containers drifted north into Canadian waters, then up the west coast of Vancouver Island Saturday and Sunday, according to the U.S. and Canadian officials.

By Saturday evening, the flotsam was about 10 miles west of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the town of Bamfield. By Sunday afternoon, a GPS-connected buoy dropped by the U.S. Coast Guard amid the debris on Friday indicated the containers were farther north and about 20 miles off the island’s west coast.

Two of those containers hold the combustible xanthate.

Environment Canada issued wind warnings for the Victoria area, with gusts up to 55 miles per hour, for Sunday and Monday. Southeasterly winds up to 62 miles per hour were forecast off Vancouver Island’s west coast, shifting to southwesterly on Monday, the direction that would tend to push floating containers onto the island’s shores.

“Due to high winds and seas predicted around Vancouver Island in the next few days, no recovery is being attempted at this time,” British Columbia emergency-response officials said on social media.

Locations where the Zim Kingston spilled 40 shipping containers (left) and caught fire (right).

Why you can trust KUOW