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Ship fire that killed N.J. FFs continues to burn

Several FDNY fire boats could be seen pumping thousands of gallons of water onto the ship


Andrew Mills

By Jackie Roman, Anthony G. Attrino

NEWARK, N.J. — More than 18 hours after fire broke out aboard a cargo ship in Port Newark — killing two veteran Newark firefighters and injuring five others — additional explosions could be heard Thursday afternoon from inside the ship and heavy smoke continued to pour from its stern.

Throughout Thursday afternoon, several New York Fire Department fire boats could be seen pumping thousands of gallons of water onto the ship, loaded with more than 1,000 new and second-hand cars and trucks bound for West Africa, in an apparent vain effort to knock down the still spreading blaze.

The cause of the fire, which will be investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as state and local authorities, remained unknown. But the vehicles being transported would certainly have all been carrying gasoline and motor oil.

“Just an awful tragedy,” said Gov. Phil Murphy.



'We lost two firefighters': N.J. FFs killed while fighting cargo ship fire identified

Two Newark firefighters have died after becoming lost while fighting a fire involving several vehicles on a cargo ship

The two firefighters who lost their lives were Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr., 49, who were both trapped after the fire was reported about 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening aboard the Grande Costa D’avorio, where crew members and stevedores at the time had been loading vehicles aboard the berthed ship.

Owners of the Italian-flagged vessel said there had been over 1,200 vehicles and 157 cargo containers on board. They said there were no electric cars nor hazardous cargo on board.

The tragedy, meanwhile, sparked pointed and growing questions, even from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, about how prepared the city’s fire department had been to battle a shipboard fire, “something that they had not trained for,” he said.

“All night and this morning I keep having images of two firefighters being lowered down from a pulley from a ship that had to be at least 150 feet or so high, and firefighters lined up on both sides as their fallen brothers were taken to the hospital,” the mayor said. “That image will forever be stamped in my mind. How dangerous this job is and how precarious things can be for our men and women in the fire service as they do their best to save people’s lives and property.”

City fire officials and others, though, believe the fire got out of hand because the initial efforts to contain it were initially begun by a fire brigade from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the ports of New York Harbor and was ill-equipped to respond. That brigade, which typically would be deployed to put out dumpster fires, was simply not equipped with the kind of fire hoses needed to bring enough water to the decks where the first was already raging, they said.

“They just didn’t have the capacity at all to deal with what was going on, so we had to take full control,” said Newark Fire Chief Rufus Jackson.

A firefighters union official said while they took over the hoses that were already laid down, they did not have the volume or pressure needed to adequately push back the fire because those hoses were too small.

Port Authority officials did not respond to requests for comment.

As the fire continued to burn throughout the afternoon, it seemed like most of the effort to contain the blaze was being handled by the FDNY fireboats, with few fire crews seen on the pier. Longshoremen on the scene speculated that officials were just going to let the fire burn itself out, noting several other ships were already being moved out of Newark Channel.

As dangerous as it can be to work at the port, where heavy machinery often leads to fatal accidents each year, industry officials believed it was the the first shipboard fire there “of any significance” in decades, according to John Nardi, president of the Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey, the port’s main trade group.

When the fire broke out Wednesday, firefighters from Hudson, Union, Essex, and Bergen provided mutual aid as the massive ship burned next to the dock through the night, authorities said. A New York Fire Department spokesman said four special operation units also responded, including a rescue squad and the city’s marine units. All remained operating on the scene into the afternoon.

Capt. Zeita Merchant, commander of Coast Guard Sector New York and captain of the Port of New York and New Jersey, said the Coast Guard was actively involved with the joint response and focused on the safety of responders, as well as assessing overall impact on the maritime transportation system and the environment.

“Our thoughts are with Newark Fire Department, our partner agencies and the families of the firefighters lost during this response,” Merchant said.

The Grande Costa D’avorio is known as a RORO vessel (for roll-on-roll off), designed to carry wheeled cargo such as cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses. Like a ferry, vehicles are driven under their own power up ramps within the ship, which is configured like a giant parking deck, and then secured to the decks for transport.

Grimaldi Deep Sea, the operator of the ship, said a loading operation was underway when the fire started on Deck 10.

“The crew of the vessel immediately activated the on-board fire suppression procedures while the local firefighting service were alerted,” Grimaldi said in a statement.

Jackson said seven vehicles were engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived on scene on Wednesday night.

But responders found that the hoses already deployed by the Port Authority fire brigade in an effort to put out the huge blaze were not nearly large enough to handle the volume of water needed to knock down the flames, according to Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union.

The issue, he said, was getting enough water on the fire. The hoses that had been set out were only 1-inch diameter — more suitable for putting out small fires in the industrial port. This fire, Tarantino continued, needed more penetration and pressure that called for a much larger 2 ½ inch hose that would have been able to blast the fire from a greater distance.

“I think the volume of water the reach and penetration didn’t give us the ability to fight the fire. We couldn’t fit in between the cars,” he said. “The Newark Fire Department is one of the best fire departments in the country. We are capable of handling any fire, but the combination of fighting a fire in the equivalent of a 12-story building on a ship with 1-inch diameter hose, which does not provide the protection, reach, and ability to put out the volume of fire, caused the deaths of our brave brothers.”

Firefighters inside the ship were forced back due to intense heat from the flames.

The two men who died were lost while backing out, Jackson told reporters.

With firefighters on the 10th and 11th decks, there was a mayday around 10:25 p.m from Acabou, who was trapped in the fire, officials said. He was eventually rescued at 12:45 a.m., more than two hours later, by members of the FDNY after multiple efforts under extreme conditions.

Acabou was transported to University Hospital in Newark, where he was pronounced dead, officials said.

A second mayday came around 10:40 p.m. from Brooks, who was also trapped, officials said. He was also eventually brought out by firefighters around 3:05 a.m. He was also taken to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The Newark fire house for Engine 16, where Acabou was based, had purple and black bunting hanging out of a second floor window Thursday afternoon. The firehouse is on Ferry Street in Newark’s Ironbound section, close to the port.

Firefighters in uniform and civilian clothes somberly embraced as they came and went. None would comment.

In a statement, the Newark Firefighters Union called Acabou and Brooks brave brothers who are being mourned by fellow firefighters and the community.

“We are grateful for the outpouring of support the community has extended to Newark firefighters,” the statement said.

“Just as we have always been there for the people of Newark in their time of need, you are here for us in our time of need. We will honor the sacrifice of Augie and Bear by continuing to do the job they loved, so if the people of Newark need help, we are still a phone call away,” the statement said.

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