A massive cargo ship carrying thousands of brand new Nissan cars remains ablaze and adrift in a remote corner of the Pacific Ocean after a catastrophic fire broke out on New Years Eve, according to the Associated Press. Nearby merchant vessels responded to the distress call and rescued 16 crew members, while another five mariners are presumed dead.
The disaster is unfolding 2,000 miles northwest of Hawaii, where the Panama-flagged Sincerity Ace is listing, slowly drifting to the southeast, and at risk of sinking after its 21-member crew was forced to abandon ship just a few days into its journey from Japan to Honolulu. United States Coast Guard officials in Hawaii first received word about a "significant" fire on board early Monday morning, the exact cause of which has yet to be determined.
With the location out of helicopter range and the nearest rescue ships days away, the Coast Guard activated the AMVER (Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue) alert system to request assistance from any private vessels in the area. Though the Sincerity Ace had drifted out of a shipping lane, five cargo ships responded and managed to save sixteen of the crew. An aerial search involving two Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon was also launched to look for additional survivors.
This time-lapse map animation by vesseltracker.com illustrates the heroic actions of the merchant vessels in stark and striking relief. The Sincerity Ace is plugging along until it suddenly loses power and starts to drift; within hours, it's swarmed by Good Samaritans as ship after ship makes a close pass to assess the situation and offer aid.
The five victims reportedly ended up in the water when a lifeboat launch went awry. Four were later spotted floating unresponsive amid 15-foot seas—the ad-hoc rescuers were unable to save them—while the fifth remains missing after the Coast Guard suspended its search on Wednesday night. Tragic as it is to lose a single life, it's also remarkable that sixteen mariners are alive right now after being forced to abandon ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with official rescue assets nowhere in sight.
"We are thankful for the assistance the crews of these merchant vessels have given us during this event, significantly reducing possible response time," Lt. Duane Zitta at the Coast Guard Joint Rescue Coordination Center said, according to AP. "Their quick actions provided for the rescue of 16 members of the crew who would otherwise still be in the water and are continuing to aid us."
Built in 2009, the 650-foot Sincerity Ace is equipped to carry 6,400 cars. It's owned by a Japanese company called Shoei Kisen Kaisha, which has already dispatched salvage tugs to the scene. It's not clear whether they'll reach the stricken ship before it sinks. The company is also working to arrange transportation for the scattered survivors to return home.
Nissan confirmed to Automotive News that the ship was carrying about 3,500 of its vehicles, adding that its thoughts "are with the crew members as well as the safety of the rescue teams." It's not known yet if any other manufacturers had cars on the Sincerity Ace; the ports it visited in Japan in December are also used by Honda and Subaru.