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‘A freight train for wrecks': Ship fire that claimed N.J. FFs points to larger dangers

Roll on/roll off vessels like the Grande Costa d’Avorio can pack thousands of vehicles of various conditions

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The Grande Costa d Avorio was an ocean-going freight train that each month exported thousands of aging and sometimes inoperable cars from the U.S. to West Africa a lucrative but sometimes dangerous cargo that presented an elevated risk of fire, the NTSB warned. (Andrea Levy)

Ted Sherman

PART 1: ‘We can’t find our way out': Audio, details of deadly N.J. cargo ship fire
PART 2: ‘Follow the search line': Details on rescue of FFs in N.J. cargo ship blaze

NEWARK, N.J. — The Toyota Venza wasn’t worth much money.

It had been a salvage vehicle, unable to move under its own power. But it had value beyond what it might have fetched from a scrap dealer. Someone had purchased it and paid to have it shipped across the world, where it likely already had a buyer who presumably would figure out a way to get it back on the road — or use it for spare parts.

It barely made it onto the ship taking it to West Africa.

The deadly chain of events at Port Newark on July 5 allegedly began when the Toyota SUV was being pushed on board the Grande Costa d’Avorio by a 16-year-old Jeep Wrangler being used as a “bumper” truck, according to court records reviewed by NJ Advance Media.

As it struggled to push the 3,800-pound Venza onto Deck 10 of the freighter, already loaded with hundreds of other second hand vehicles being exported, the Jeep reportedly erupted in flames. Dockworkers fled as the fire spread rapidly like a match on tinder, jumping from car to car inside the cavernous cargo hold, all serving to fuel the inferno that killed two Newark firefighters.

Investigators have spent months looking into the causes and spread of the fire, along with the deaths of Newark firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr., 49, who died after apparently becoming disoriented in the heavy smoke on the deck, according to incident reports obtained by NJ Advance Media.

The reports were obtained by NJ Advance Media as part of a months-long investigation that revealed the Newark Fire Department had little knowledge of shipboard firefighting, had not conducted shipboard training in nearly a decade, and had no standard operating procedures to guide them in ship fire incidents. Not even the city’s fireboat was working that night.

But the devastating fire also put a renewed focus on a largely unseen global trade in used, high-polluting cars, trucks and sports utility vehicles that instead of being recycled, shredded or crushed have increasingly found a second-life in third-world countries where few can afford the price of a new car and climate concerns are less pressing.

The Grande Costa d’Avorio was at the heart of that trade, serving as a seafaring junkyard. On board were more than 1,200 vehicles parked so tightly together that it was nearly impossible to move between them.

Long before the fatal Port Newark fire, there were red flags about the old cars that fueled it.

The National Transportation Safety Board in 2021 issued warnings about the shipping of such vehicles. In a report on a similar shipboard fire, the NTSB noted that older cars are often damaged, may be leaking fluids, or are shipped with unsecured batteries that present “an elevated risk of fire.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region’s ports, suspended all such exports after the fire in July as the investigation continued.

But as the cargo manifest of the cargo ship that burned for days in Newark so graphically showed, the shipment of used cars and trucks to ports in Africa has become big business.

Last year, 48,360 used vehicles were exported just from the New York area marine terminals, according to Port Authority officials. They wind up in used car lots outside of West African port cities such as Cotonou in Benin, Lagos in Nigeria, or Dakar in Senegal, where they find no shortage of customers.

Who buys and ships them is unclear. There are few records.

“There are major players there who import thousands of vehicles,” said Dmitriy Shibarshin, marketing director for West Coast Shipping, a company that specializes in shipping cars internationally.

Many of the vehicles typically come by way of insurance auctions, according to Shibarshin, whose company has a shipping facility in Linden but deals mostly with higher-end cars that are typically secured in containers and not on specialized car-carrying ships like the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

“They sell to a middleman. Those with dealer’s licenses,” he explained of the purchasers here in the United States. “They buy them and then they have a dealer (overseas) who sells them.”

Some may be salvage vehicles from insurance write-offs. Others are high-mileage trade-ins that dealerships consign to auction because they cannot profitably sell the vehicles themselves. Still others come from charitable donations to non-profit organizations that then sell the cars through an auction facility.

One company that serves as a marketplace is IAA Holdings, a firm headquartered near Chicago which operates auto auction sites throughout this country — including several in New Jersey.

“IAA sells vehicles to licensed dismantlers, scrappers, rebuilders, used car dealers, exporters, brokers and consumers,” said Meggan O’Malley, vice president of marketplace demand at IAA.

That market extends to Africa, although the company has not been tied in any way to the fire aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

In April, the company joined forces with Antonio SARL, a broker and auto sales operation in Benin, giving local buyers in the small West African nation the ability to do one-stop shopping in the online search for vehicles.Fsix

O’Malley, though, said IAA did not play an active role helping international buyers import vehicles to their desired destination and does not arrange the transport of cars overseas.

“IAA buyers are responsible for arranging their own shipping or transport overseas,” she said.

Still, she understands the economics of exporting a vehicle such as the inoperable Toyota that was being pushed onto the Grande Costa d’Avorio for export to West Africa.

Benin is a “free” no-tax zone, explained O’Malley. “That, coupled with lower parts and labor costs makes it profitable for buyers in Benin and the surrounding areas, like Togo and Nigeria, to purchase used or salvage vehicles from the U.S. to rebuild,” she said.

The operators of Dakar Terminal, the site of a major car import facility in Senegal that opened in 2014, said many of the vehicles that come through their port are purchased by individuals who acquire them through relatives in the United States. Others involve transactions through dealers based in Senegal who buy cars and then sell them while the vehicles are still on a ship en route to Dakar, said a spokeswoman.

Between 2021 and 2023, Dakar Terminal imported around 8,064 vehicles. More than 70% were from Baltimore, although cars were also received from Savannah, Galveston, Wilmington and the Port of New York/New Jersey.

That trade, though, has been under mounting criticism, even before the fire aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

A 2020 United Nations report described a vast and largely unregulated business trafficking in older, dirty vehicles that are often simply dumped abroad. Many have no emission controls, stripped of diesel particulate filters or catalytic converters, a pollution control device containing platinum, palladium, and rhodium that are worth more per ounce than gold, making them a widespread target of thieves in this country.

Rob de Jong, an author of the report, works in Nairobi for the United Nations Environment Programme and described many of the exported cars that arrive on the other side of the world as wrecks.

“The insides are horrible. They don’t go fast. They are end of life,” he said of the vehicles he has seen in Africa. “They burn oil. They cost a lot to maintain. They are run down.”

But owners keep them on the road until they can’t drive them anymore.

“There are no vehicle graveyards here,” de Jong explained. “When can’t go anymore, they are reused. You see pots and pans here banged out of steel from old cars.”

When they arrive in port, already worn out from years on the road, or heavily damaged in accidents that are too expensive to fix here and in Europe. Some get fixed up because labor is cheap, he said. Otherwise, they are banked for parts to fix other cars.

The UN report found six in 10 of the cars added to the roads in Africa each year were used vehicles shipped mostly from Europe, Japan and the United States. It called those imports a threat to the world’s environment.

“Most developing countries have limited or no regulations on governing the quality and safety of imported used vehicles and rules which do exist are often poorly enforced,” the report said. “Equally, few developed countries have restrictions on the export of used vehicles.”

The Netherlands Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, which examined the types of vehicles that country exports to Africa, found many were old and far below European emission standards. Many often did not have valid roadworthiness certificates. Yet the agency noted that laws of economics usually mean if there is still someone willing to pay for the vehicle, the vehicle usually continues driving.

“Sometimes, however, the condition of the vehicles is such that dismantling is the only or best way forward,” the report said.

Still, while a segment of the used vehicles are old wrecks that are not roadworthy, de Jong said not all used cars are bad.

“Vehicles that are, say, 5 years old are often better than new cars sold in African markets,” he said. “So it is a mix. A large share are bad, while a similar large share are still quite good. That is why we are promoting the introduction of used vehicles regulations — to separate the bad ones from the good ones.”

In fact, he is against an overall ban on used vehicles.

“Quality used cars allow developing countries to get access to advanced technology in an affordable way,” he said.

While an increasing number of African countries have been placing new limits on the age or condition of vehicles they will accept, especially in East Africa, de Jong said the far majority “have no regulation and take anything or everything.”

A freight train for wrecksThe Grande Costa d’Avorio — Italian for the Greater Ivory Coast — was like an ocean-going freight train for second hand cars.

Known as a “RO-RO,” short for a roll on-roll off vessel, the ship was built for Grimaldi Deep Sea of Naples in 2011, a part of Italy’s largest ship owning group. It was a so-called “combo,” designed to carry both standard shipping containers and wheeled cargo ranging from cars and motorcycles to trucks and buses.

The vessel’s regular monthly schedule included port calls in Baltimore, New Jersey, and Providence, R.I., where cars destined for overseas would be driven, towed or dragged up ramps within the ship and then secured to the decks for transport before the ship and its cargo headed across the Atlantic — first to Dakar and then on to ports in Benin, Nigeria, Toga and Ghana.

Marine safety experts, though, say car-carrier ships — aside from the hazards their cargos themselves might present — are themselves inherently dangerous. The inside of a vessel such as the Grande Costa d’Avorio has the look of a parking garage able to accommodate sometimes thousands of cars and small trucks, within huge open spaces that can be hard to isolate in the event of a fire.

Unlike a parking garage, those vehicles are packed as close together as possible to get more of them on board, making such ships particularly vulnerable to fire, noted Salvatore Mercogliano, an associate professor of history at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., who also serves as an adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and is the host of the YouTube channel What’s Going On with Shipping.

Even electric vehicles present a danger at sea aboard RO-RO ships, he said. If damaged, the lithium-ion batteries that power those vehicles can experience uncontrolled increases in temperature and pressure, known as thermal runaway, which can lead to fires.

Last year, another car carrier, the Felicity Ace — loaded with about 4,000 vehicles, including high-end Bentleys and Porsches — caught fire and sank about 253 miles off the Azores — just six days after it departed from Emden, Germany, according to the company that managed the vessel.

Typically, RO-RO ships use fire suppression systems to flood the decks with CO2 to starve a fire of oxygen. But Mercogliano noted that the system only works if the deck is sealed and ventilation is secure.

“This ship was in the procedure of loading, so it is extremely difficult to secure areas to adequately flood spaces with CO2,” he said of the Grande Costa d’Avorio. “All hatches and ventilation would need to be closed, but I can see on the top deck from the video that they were not able to shut down the aft house.”

Edward Kelly, general president of the Washington-based International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents Newark’s firefighters, said shipboard fires are complex and dangerous and RO-RO vessels present their own challenges. He called for better oversight of shipping lines.

“These ships could be transporting any type of vehicle, all requiring a unique response. When hazardous materials travel through our cities and towns by rail, firefighters have a way of quickly accessing that manifest, allowing them to respond accordingly. That’s not always the case with ships like the Grande Costa d’Avorio,” he said.

Grimaldi Deep Sea, the owner of the Grande Costa d’Avorio, maintains that the fire was not its fault. In a recent court filing, it asked a federal judge to issue a limitation of liability against the company and its vessel for no more than the $15.9 million estimated value of the ship and its cargo.

“The casualty, loss of life, damages, injuries and destruction resulting from the fire that started from the Jeep Wrangler…were not caused or contributed to by any fault, neglect, or want of care of design on the part of the vessel or those in charge of her,” they wrote. “Grimaldi exercised due diligence to make and maintain the vessel in all respects seaworthy, and the vessel was, in fact, tight, staunch and strong, and fully and property manned, equipped and supplied.”

In other court records, the 16-year-old Jeep was identified as sparking the fire. That claim was confirmed by attorney Mark Apostolos, who represents the families of Newark firefighters who were later found dead just feet away from the Wrangler and the Toyota it was pushing. According to the attorney, those involved in bringing the vehicles on board claimed the Jeep had been experiencing mechanical difficulties all day before flames suddenly erupted underneath its chassis.

“Smoke had been coming out of the engine compartment hours before the fire started,” said Apostolos, who plans to file lawsuits against the shipping company, the marine terminal that was loading the vessel, and the city.

The Wrangler was owned by Ports America of Jersey City, which operated the terminal where the ship was being loaded. A spokeswoman said Ports America “continues to extend its condolences to the families of the deceased and injured firefighters and has and will continue to offer full support to the agencies that are currently investigating the fire” aboard the Grimaldi vessel.

She added that it was important to remember that the ongoing investigation “is confidential” and “is still very much underway,” despite the assertions of the attorney for the families.

“No findings have yet been made,” said the spokeswoman, Donea Gomez. “We will respond to any allegations made against Ports America at the appropriate time after the confidential Coast Guard-led investigation into the fire is completed or as otherwise permitted in an applicable court process.”

Concerns over ships like the Grande Costa d’Avorio, meanwhile, were a focus of some concern even before the deaths at Port Newark. At least five RO-RO vessels have been swept by fire since 2015, according to U.S. Coast Guard and NTSB reports.

Among those incidents included a fire in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2020 aboard the Höegh Xiamen, a ship that had been chartered by Grimaldi but was being operated by a different company. On board were 2,420 used vehicles, many with batteries that were not properly disconnected under Grimaldi’s own guidelines, investigators ultimately found.

“During loading operations, both the loading personnel and vessel crew missed opportunities to address these hazards,” they said, concluding that the fire was likely caused by “an electrical arc or component fault in one of the used vehicles loaded on Deck 8.”

Many of the cars were also not checked for the amount of gas they had in their tanks, which the NTSB said should be minimal. A stevedore who handled the loading process aboard the Höegh Xiamen was asked in depositions related to an ongoing lawsuit by firefighters injured in an explosion related to the fire said such vehicles were typically classified as “forklifts, runners and tows.”

“Forklifts” referred to inoperable vehicles.

“Were they wrecks?” a lawyer asked.

“Pretty much,” he agreed.

“Runners” were cars able to start that could be driven on board.

“Tows” could roll, allowing them to be pushed or pulled, but could not be started.

The unnamed stevedore was asked if anyone even looked to see if there was any gas in the non-running “tow” cars, as was required under Grimaldi’s operational policies.

It seemed like a stupid question to the dockworker who repeatedly said he did not understand what was being asked.

“How would you do that?” he asked. How would one check to see much gas was in the tank?

“Turning it on?”

“It’s got no power to it,” the stevedore pointed out.

The Höegh Xiamen and its cargo were declared a total loss, valued at $40 million.

In its recommendations following the investigation, the NTSB called for improved oversight of vehicle loading as well as training of personnel involved in battery securement for used and damaged vehicles. It also proposed improved regulations for vehicle carriers that transport used vehicles.

Nearly two years after issuing its report, a strikingly similar fire broke out aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio in Port Newark.

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