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FDNY mostly bars civilians from fire boats 5 months after Belgian firefighter died in crash

The rule change comes as the estate of Sgt. Johnny Beernaert prepares to sue the city over the fatal incident


File photo: NYPD Police and FDNY boats were tied up to US Airways Flight 1549 that crashed into the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. FDNY issued new rules for rides on its fire boats Friday.

Photo/Thomas Monaster/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service

By Janon Fisher and Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — No civilians will be allowed to ride on New York City Fire Department fire boats unless the trip is approved by the department’s chief of fire operations, the FDNY said Friday — five months after a rogue fire boat trip ended in the death of a visiting Belgian firefighter.

The codified rules come as the estate of Sgt. Johnny Beernaert prepares to sue the city over the fatal June 17 East River crash, the Daily News has learned.

In a notice of claim filed with the city Comptroller’s office, attorneys for Beernaert’s estate say the department was “negligent in inviting and/or permitting civilians to ride as passengers” on Marine 1 Bravo, a 31-foot-long fire boat that docks in the Hudson River.

The still unfiled wrongful death lawsuit will be seeking damages for his wife, Heidi Vermandel, and their two children, the notice of claim, which was filed in September, states.

Beernaert and his wife were taking a ride across the East River at 11 p.m. when Marine 1 Bravo collided with the charter boat the Honcho near Pier 11. The Belgian suffered a head injury in the crash and died at Bellevue Hospital. Vermandel was not harmed.

At least two other civilians, identified as a retired FDNY firefighter and his wife, were also on the boat, but not injured.

The clarified FDNY policy, which was distributed to its members Friday, makes it clear that all “harbor familiarization tours not authorized by the Chief of Operations (or designee) are strictly prohibited.”

The city’s Department of Investigation recommended that the FDNY clarify its rules about civilian boat rides to make sure everyone is aware of the policy, an FDNY source said.

“Officers shall not permit passengers on FDNY marine vessels for non-emergencies, unless (they) are members of the department or are assisting in the performance of official department business or operations, or the officers have received approval through the chain of command,” the policy indicates.

Non-fire personnel are usually not allowed to ride on marine boats without permission, but in the past, the approval came from officers at the Marine Unit, not by higher-ups at headquarters, an FDNY source said.

“It’s not like the pilot of the boat can say, ‘Come on let’s go for a ride!’” the source said.

The policy goes on to say that any requests for civilians to ride on an FDNY fire boat must be submitted to the Chief of Marine Operations, who will then forward the request to the Chief of Operations office.

It also indicates that no less than one officer and two firefighters must be on any approved familiarization tours and conduct a safety briefing for all passengers who are approved to ride on the boat.

During the June 17 crash, an on-duty firefighter was driving the boat, but he was the sole Marine Unit member on board, a department source said.

The FDNY dry-docked three Marine 1 fire officers — a lieutenant, a captain and a battalion chief — following the crash, pulling them from their regular duties and assigned to administrative jobs within the Marine Unit.

Neither the firefighter on the boat, who passed all drug and alcohol tests following the crash, nor his superiors have been hit with criminal or disciplinary charges as the Coast Guard continues it’s investigation. An email to the Coast Guard was not immediately returned.

Multiple efforts to reach the owner of the Honcho have been unsuccessful.

Lawyers representing the Beernaerts’ estate did not return calls for comment.


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