Two weeks after it first caught fire, the car carrier Felicity Ace sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 250 miles off the cost of the Azores.
The ship takes with it nearly 4,000 Volkswagen products — and leaves behind what could be an unsolved mystery about the cause of the blaze which forced 22 crew members to quickly evacuate. All of the sailors were safely rescued.
“Some debris and a small stain of oily waste are recorded on the site, which is being dispersed by the water jets of the trailers and which is being monitored by the Department of Pollution of the National Maritime Authority and by European Maritime Security Agency,” the Portugese navy reported Tuesday.
Nearly 4,000 vehicles onboard
The Felicity Ace was being operated by the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and was en route from Emsden, Germany to a port in Rhode Island where it was to unload some of the 3,956 vehicles onboard. It then was to make its way down the U.S. coast, dropping off vehicles at several other ports.
The cargo included a large number of Volkswagen models, including the ID.4 battery-electric vehicle produced at a plant in Emsden, as well as Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini and Bentley products. Those four brands are all part of the Volkswagen Group.
The fire started Feb. 16 and quickly raced out of control, forcing the crew to abandon the 650-foot ship and leave the carrier adrift off the Azores. It took days before fire-fighting tugs arrived and began spraying water on it.
Salvage efforts were underway
The blaze took days to burn itself out but by last Friday a salvage crew arrived by helicopter to begin a planned rescue effort that was to see the Felicity Ace towed to a port for handling. Only a select number of ports were seen as capable of addressing the situation which was compounded by the lithium-ion batteries used in some of the vehicles onboard.
As of Friday, the navy reported seeing “no fires on the outside or inside, although there is a high temperature in the central area, with no smoke in its structure.”
By the weekend, the ship was put in tow but on Tuesday, as the salvagers were set to get onboard, rough weather hit the area. It is unclear if that contributed to the sinking.
The bigger question is what caused the fire. There has been some speculation — though no direct evidence — that it could have been sparked by a problem with a battery used in an electric vehicle carried aboard the Felicity Ace. The cargo included some VW ID.4 models. Lithium batteries burn hot when ignited and can be extremely difficult to put out. But models with internal combustion engines were also carrying flammable gasoline.
Potential environmental problems
The carrier has gone down off the Azores, an archipelago considered to be significant feeding region for fish, dolphins and whales, according to the Washington Post. There is concern that the various materials aboard the Felicity Ace could create an environmental hazard.
An estimated $400 million worth of vehicles were aboard the ship when it burned and ultimately sank, according to risk analysis firm the Russell Group. That exceeds some earlier estimates that predicted the loss of cargo and the salvage effort might cost a combined $500 million.
The incident creates another headache for an auto industry already plagued by low inventories due to semiconductor shortages. Many of the vehicles aboard the Felicity Ace had already been sold to buyers in the U.S. who had been waiting months to take delivery.