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Coast Guard cites lack of training in fatal N.J. cargo ship fire

Preliminary report finds Newark firefighters were ill-equipped and had little to no maritime firefighting training


Newark firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr ., 49, died that night. (Andrew Mills)

By Ted Sherman

NEWARK, N.J. — A new U.S. Coast Guard report on the deadly Port Newark fire raises new questions about the training of those who battled the blaze aboard a cargo ship loaded with second-hand vehicles bound for West Africa that led to the deaths of two firefighters in July.

That brief preliminary report said the Newark Fire Department had been unprepared for the fight that saw a fire few thought to be serious quickly spread out of control.

“Preliminary findings of the ongoing investigation, led by the Coast Guard working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, indicated that the local fire department responding to the incident had little to no maritime firefighting training, experience, or familiarization with cargo ships of any type,” it said in a two-page safety alert issued by the Inspections and Compliance Directorate.

The full investigation by the Coast Guard and a parallel investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is not expected to be completed for at least a year.

The safety alert mirrors the findings of a recent NJ Advance Media in a series of stories that found the Newark Fire Department — which was responsible for responding to fires at the port — had not conducted marine training in nearly a decade.

Those stories showed that firefighters had been ill-equipped for what they faced when the first alarms were sounded for the fire aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio, an Italian-flagged freighter loaded with old and salvaged vehicles. In fact, even when there had been the opportunity to train in recent years, the city opted not to participate, documents revealed. In a series of emergency response exercises for firefighters held at the container terminals in Elizabeth and Bayonne in April, October, and November of 2021, not a single Newark firefighter attended.

Other reports obtained through public records requests found firefighters did not know anything as basic as the need for an international shipboard adapter to connect their hoses to the ship’s internal standpipe system to pump the volumes of water needed to battle the blaze, allowing it to spread out of control.

One state lawmaker, meanwhile, is now calling for mandatory marine firefighting training for all New Jersey firefighters in the wake of the tragedy at Port Newark.

“Any time there is a loss of life, there is a failure and when you have those type of failures you have to do something about it,” said state Assemblyman William Sampson IV, D- Hudson, who this past week introduced a bill that would require the state Division of Fire Safety to adopt Coast Guard -approved marine firefighting courses for land-based firefighters.

If signed into law, A-5758 would mandate that all firefighters in New Jersey complete basic marine firefighting training within a year of the bill’s signing, and mandated to go through advanced marine firefighting within two years of completing the basic marine firefighting course.

Mayor Ras Baraka last week proposed the creation of a special joint task force to consider legislative and other changes in response to the deadly fire and said he has been talking with officials at the Port Authority about building a marine firefighting training facility at the port.

In response to the preliminary report by investigators, the mayor said the Coast Guard needs to work closely with the port and cities such as Newark “to make sure they can respond and assist with maximum efficiency, and provide protocol or oversight” when land-based fire departments must respond to shipboard fires.

“Knowing that this is only a preliminary report, which focuses on Newark, we look forward to other interim and final reports addressing all inter-agency concerns and recommendations for improvement,” he said in a statement. “As mayor of Newark, I put my support behind every bit of emerging information that helps us move in the right direction. I support the widest coalition of advocates for every measure that will ensure that the tragedy we are enduring never happens again, anywhere. The more we know about what happened on the Grande Costa D’Avorio, and the preparedness of our safety personnel, the more we realize how wide a collaboration is needed across many agencies and municipalities.”

In its alert, the Coast Guard warned of the fire dangers of car-carrying roll-on, roll-off or “RO-RO” ships such as the Grande Costa d’Avorio, which burned for six days at its berth in Port Newark after one vehicle on board reportedly burst into flames that soon spread throughout the vessel.

The Coast Guard noted that such incidents require more firefighting resources and “different technical skills” than many land-based firefighting agencies traditionally possess.

“With over 1,200 vehicles on board, the fire quickly spread out of control to the point where most firefighting efforts became ineffective,” the safety alert recounted. “Unfortunately, this is only one of several vessel fires occurring within the last five years where the lack of familiarity with commercial vessels and inexperience with shipboard firefighting techniques unduly endangered the safety of responding personnel.”

At least five car-carrying RO-RO vessels have been swept by fire since 2015, according to NTSB reports.

While shipboard fires may occur less frequently than other types, the Coast Guard said they can present “significant risk” to untrained first responders.

“Additionally, large foreign-flagged vessels are typically operated by international crewmembers, for many of whom English is not their first language,” it pointed out.

Indeed, several Newark Fire Department commanders complained in written reports obtained by NJ Advance Media that it had been difficult to communicate with the ship’s crew. While members of the crew had all been accounted for and were in no danger, they were unable to give firefighters a better idea of what they might be facing down below. Few could speak English very well, if at all.

“Everything was very vague,” wrote a battalion chief.

The Coast Guard called for local fire departments “to engage with each other and the local Captain of the Port” in places like the Port of New York and New Jersey, to establish regular shipboard firefighting education and training “in conjunction with drills and exercises required for certain vessels.”

New Jersey currently has no requirement for marine fire training. In fact, officials said the state does not even have an accredited certification program for marine and shipboard firefighting.

[RELATED: N.J. fire department proposes joint task force, training facility in response to fatal shipboard fire]

Killed the night of the Port Newark fire were Newark firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr ., 49, who became trapped after they descended into the burning vessel with others seeking the cause of the fire already burning on the top deck..

Acabou was found wedged tightly between a car and a sports utility vehicle, ensnared in the tie-down webbing that held the two vehicles in place on Deck 10. The body of Brooks was later recovered by a New York City Fire Department search-and-rescue team on the same deck.

Sampson, a longshoreman who works as a crane operator at the container terminal in Bayonne, said “When you send people into a place that is foreign to them,” they should be well equipped and prepared for every situation.

“I don’t want those firefighters to have died in vain,” the assemblyman said.

Acknowledging the fire department’s training gap, Newark’s mayor last week disclosed that the city was exploring the establishment a permanent marine firefighting training facility at the region’s port. Baraka said the city has already begun talking with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region’s ports, about such a proposal, which port officials confirmed.

The Port Authority itself has no fire brigade covering its ports.

Additionally, the mayor said the city will be assembling a specialized Newark Fire Division group as well that would have advanced training for responding to fires at the port and plans a special joint task force to consider legislative and other changes in response to the fire, but said that will not go forward until the various investigations by the Coast Guard, the NTSB and other agencies are completed.

Firefighting experts agree that the tragedy at Port Newark pointed to the need for some basic marine firefighting training for any department that responds to port fires.

However, Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science and public management at John Jay College in New York and a former assistant fire chief who serves on the Fire Code Advisory Council for New Jersey, questioned whether the new legislative proposal just introduced might be too far-reaching by imposing stringent requirements on fire departments that have no need of maritime training.

“I’m glad to see someone is doing something. But this is too scattershot,” he said. “They would mandate training that doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense for communities in places like Sussex County. It has to be targeted and tiered, depending on what departments must to deal with.”

What is particularly needed, he believes, is a dedicated maritime firefighting training center in New Jersey to prepare fire departments with responsibility for responding to calls at the port, as is now being explored. Such a facility, he said, should be funded by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the ports in the metropolitan New York region.

Sampson said he is already talking with fire chiefs about possible amendments to his draft legislation.

“What you see is not the final version,” he said.

Still, Edward Kelly, a Boston firefighter and general president of the Washington-based International Association of Fire Fighters, the national union that represents Newark’s firefighters, said state mandates should not be the driving force for change.

“Fire departments must bear the responsibility of training their firefighters for any hazard. In cities like Newark, home to one of the busiest ports in the world, training for shipboard fires is a no-brainer,” he said. “The impetus shouldn’t be a state law. It’s common sense.”

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