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Salvage crews wait for chance to board a freighter burning for 2 days off the Dutch coast

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Salvage crews are waiting for a chance to board a cargo ship loaded with cars that has been burning for more than two days off the northern Dutch coast

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Salvage crews were waiting Friday for a chance to board a cargo ship loaded with cars that has been burning for more than two days off the northern Dutch coast.

One crew member died and others were injured after the blaze started. The entire crew was evacuated from the ship in the early hours of Wednesday, with some leaping into the sea and being picked up by a lifeboat.

The Fremantle Highway was still ablaze Friday and being held by a tugboat 16 kilometers (10 miles) off the coast of the northern island of Terschelling, Netherlands Coastguard spokesperson Lea Versteeg said. The burning freighter is close to busy North Sea shipping lanes and an internationally renowned migratory bird habitat.

“The focus is now on making an even stronger connection” between the stricken ship and a salvage vessel, Versteeg said. “To do that, it is necessary to put people on board but it is not sure yet if that is possible and when that is possible.”

There was less smoke pouring out of the ship and its temperature appeared to be decreasing, said Edwin de Feijter, a spokesperson for the Dutch government’s infrastructure and waterways agency.

Confusion persisted Friday about the number of cars on board the ship that was sailing from Bremerhaven in Germany to Singapore when it caught fire late Tuesday. The Dutch coast guard initially said it was carrying 2,857 cars, including 25 electric cars, but reports have put the number of cars and electric vehicles higher.

The United States National Transportation Safety Board has warned about the possible dangers of electric vehicle battery fires, a hazard that stems from thermal runaway, a chemical reaction that causes uncontrolled battery temperature and pressure increases.

The coast guard said its earlier statements were based on the initial freight list it received and that it did not have updated information. Calls and an email to shipping company K Line, which charters and operates the ship, went unanswered.

The Dutch infrastructure and waterways agency also was working off the initial freight list, De Feijter said, and it was looking into the confusion.

The burning vessel was close to the shallow Wadden Sea, a World Heritage-listed area that is considered one of the world’s most significant habitats for migratory birds. It's also close to the Netherlands' border with Germany, whose environment minister, Steffi Lemke, said Thursday that if the ship were to sink it “could turn into an environmental catastrophe of unknown proportions.”

Earlier this month in Newark, New Jersey, firefighters took nearly a week to extinguish a similar blaze in a car transport ship. Two firefighters were killed and five others were injured battling the flames.

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