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Deadly cargo ship fire still burning on vessel carrying 500 electric vehicles in North Sea

The Hague, Netherlands — A fire on a cargo ship carrying more than 3,500 new vehicles was still burning Thursday in the North Sea a day after the Dutch coast guard said one crew member had died in the blaze. The company operating the cargo ship, K Line, was quoted by the Reuters news agency Friday as saying almost 500 of the vehicles on the stricken vessel, the Freemantle Highway car carrier, were battery electric vehicles (EVs).

The Dutch coast guard said Thursday that the cause of the fire was unclear and that only about 25 of the vehicles on the ship were EVs, but in the audio of an emergency call released by Dutch broadcaster RTL, someone can be heard saying "the fire started in the battery of an electric car." 

CBS News was unable to reach anyone in K Line's offices in London or the Netherlands on Friday who would comment on the ship. 

An aerial photograph shows emergency boats extinguishing a fire aboard the Panamanian-registered car carrier cargo ship Fremantle Highway, off the coast of the northern Dutch island of Ameland. FLYING FOCUS/ANP/AFP/Getty

According to an unnamed K Line spokesperson in Tokyo quoted by Reuters, there were 3,783 vehicles on the Freemantle Highway, including 498 EVs. The spokesperson did not give Reuters any information about the make of the vehicles on the ship. 

The coast guard said it was working to save the vessel from sinking close to an important habitat for migratory birds. Boats and helicopters were used to get the 23 crew members off the ship after they tried unsuccessfully to put out the blaze, the coast guard said in a statement.

Some of the crew members jumped off the ship's deck into the sea and were picked up by a lifeboat, the lifeboat's captain told Dutch broadcaster NOS. Some of the crew suffered broken bones, burns and breathing problems and were taken to hospitals in the northern Netherlands, emergency services said.

"Currently there are a lot of vessels on scene to monitor the situation and to see how to get the fire under control," coast guard spokesperson Lea Versteeg said by telephone. "But it's all depending on weather and the damage to the vessel. So we're currently working out to see how we can make sure that ... the least bad situation is going to happen."

Dutch coastguard boat (R) approaches the Panamanian-registered car carrier cargo ship Fremantle Highway on fire off the coast of the northern Dutch island of Ameland, July 26, 2023, in the North Sea. JAN SPOELSTRA/ANP/AFP/Getty

Asked if it was possible the ship would sink, Versteeg said, "It's a scenario we're taking into account and we're preparing for all scenarios."

The Fremantle Highway was sailing from the German port of Bremerhaven to Port Said in Egypt when it caught fire about 17 miles north of the Dutch island of Ameland.

Its location is close to a chain of Dutch and German islands popular with tourists in the shallow Wadden Sea, a World Heritage-listed area described by UNESCO as "the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world" and "one of the most important areas for migratory birds in the world."

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, and it wasn't clear how the crew member's death occurred.

"It's carrying cars, 2,857 of which 25 are electrical cars, which made the fire even more difficult. It's not easy to keep that kind of fire under control and even in such a vessel it's not easy," Versteeg said.

Experts worry about heavy electric vehicles' safety 02:32

Images taken from shore showed a long plume of grey smoke drifting over the sea from the stricken ship.

One towing ship managed to establish a connection with the freighter to hold it in place.

"We hope that the fire will be under control or will die out and that we can get the vessel in a safe location," Versteeg said. "But it's all uncertain what's going to happen now."

The coast guard said in a statement that salvage companies and water authorities were "looking at the best ways to limit the damage as much as possible."

Authorities in Germany were also on alert, German news agency dpa reported.

"We are monitoring the situation," a spokesperson for the German sea disaster command in the northern city of Cuxhaven said, adding that it had offered support to the Dutch authorities. He said rescue ships and task forces were ready to help if needed, but that no decision had been made on whether to send them.

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