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Coast Guard to hold first hearings on ship blaze that killed 2 firefighters

The hearings will focus, in part, on the initial actions by the ship’s crew and the response to the fire by Newark and other local land-based fire departments


Flames can be seen on the top deck of the Grande Costa d’Avorio, which burned for six days.

Andrew Mills/TNS

By Ted Sherman

NEWARK, N.J. — A series of public hearings will be held next month by the U.S. Coast Guard into the deadly shipboard fire that killed two firefighters this past July at Port Newark, officials said Monday.

The hearings, which will be conducted in the greater Newark area in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board, will begin the week of Jan. 8 and continue through the week of Jan. 15. The exact dates and times have yet to be set.

According to the Coast Guard, the hearings will focus on the condition of the Grande Costa d’Avorio, the Italian-flagged cargo vessel that was in the process of loading used vehicles on board for export to West Africa when the fire erupted, the cargo loading process at the port, as well as the initial actions by the ship’s crew, and the response to the fire by Newark and other local land-based fire departments.

The sessions will be open to the public and will be broadcast live, said Coast Guard officials.

The ongoing investigation into the fire and tragic deaths is being conducted jointly by the Coast Guard and the NTSB, with participation by the Italian General Directorate for Railway and Maritime Investigations.

Killed on board the ship on the night of July 5 were firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr ., 49, who were found trapped on a lower deck between lashed down vehicles after they apparently becoming lost and disoriented in the heavy smoke conditions within the compartment.

In an initial report issued late last month, the Coast Guard found the Newark Fire Department had been unprepared for the fight as the fire that at first did not seem 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.

That report followed a series of stories by NJ Advance Media that showed firefighters had been ill-prepared for what they faced when the alarms were sounded at Berth 18, revealing the city — which was responsible for responding to fires at the port — had not conducted marine firefighting training in nearly a decade.

Other reports obtained through public records requests noted that firefighters did not know of 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.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has announced that the city plans to form a port emergency response team.

Details regarding the port emergency response team are still being worked out, said Catherine Adams, the public safety department’s spokeswoman, but she described it as a SWAT team for the fire department.

“We plan to handpick the best firefighters from across the city and public safety leadership to form a separate elite unit. They will have specialized cargo ship training and be specifically designed to respond to port fires and other emergencies,” she said. “We anticipate this training to be in collaboration with Port Authority and the U.S. Coast Guard and are actively working with the port to identify a location and stand up this unit.”

Separately, meanwhile, one state lawmaker is calling for mandatory marine firefighting training for all New Jersey firefighters in the wake of what happened at Port Newark .

If signed into law, A-5758, sponsored by state Assemblyman William Sampson IV , D- Hudson , would require that all firefighters in New Jersey complete a basic marine firefighting training within a year of the bill’s signing.


Ted Sherman may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL

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