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Public hearings begin on cargo ship fire that claimed 2 N.J. firefighters

At least 13 witnesses will testify about the Grande Costa d’Avorio fire that killed Newark firefighters Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr .

Fatal Cargo Ship Fire

FILE - Emergency personnel battle against a fire aboard the Italian-flagged Grande Costa d’Avorio cargo ship at the Port of Newark, Friday, July 7, 2023, in Newark, N.J. On Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board began a series of investigative hearings into the cause of the fire, and plan to issue recommendations to avoid similar incidents in the future.

John Minchillo/AP

By Ted Sherman

NEWARK, N.J. — Six months after a fatal shipboard fire at Port Newark claimed the lives of two firefighters, federal investigators are set to begin a series of public hearings to determine what happened aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio on the night of July 5.

The hearings by the U.S. Coast Guard in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board, which will start on Wednesday, will question Capt. Alessandro Moretti, the master of the ship, and other representatives of the Grimaldi Group, the shipping company that operated the vessel. Moretti has not spoken publicly since the fire.

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Coast Guard officials said they will also examine the handling procedures involving the loading of 1,200 second-hand cars which fueled the fire, look at the initial response actions by the ship’s crew, and the ill-fated efforts by the Newark Fire Department to get it under control.

“The investigation has been extensive and multi-faceted,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Christian Barger, the lead investigator who called the ongoing fact-finding inquiry a complex effort that will “leave no stone unturned.”

Thirteen witnesses are scheduled testify, including members of the ship’s crew, marine terminal workers, members of the Newark Fire Department and various experts in what Barger said will be an effort to determine the causes of the calamity and to make recommendations to prevent future such incidents. The hearings, which will be held at the Union Township City Council Chambers in Union County, will be livestreamed at:

Barger could not offer a timetable as to when the Coast Guard investigation might be completed.

Killed on board the Italian-flagged freighter in July were Newark 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 became lost and disoriented in the heavy smoke conditions within the vessel.

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According to federal court filings in connection with the incident, the blaze began after a 16-year-old Jeep Wrangler that was being used to push inoperable Toyota Venza erupted in flames. The fire quickly spread to the hundreds of junked vehicles packed closely together on board.

A series of stories by NJ Advance Media after the fire that showed that Newark’s fire department — 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 also revealed 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. The city’s fireboat was also out of action that night, unable to start and then no one sought the assistance of the Fire Department of New York and its fleet of fireboats until hours had gone by, reports show.

Before the night was over, battalion chiefs made a decision that ended in tragedy, leading men below deck, despite the knowledge that the ship’s crew had all been accounted for and that lives were at risk.

In an initial report issued in November, the Coast Guard confirmed that the Newark Fire Department had been unprepared for the fight.

“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.

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 roll-on/roll-off vessels have been swept by fire since 2015, according to NTSB reports.

State and local officials have proposed the creation of a special joint task force to consider legislative and other changes in response to the deadly fire. At the same time, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the city is considering a marine firefighting training facility that would be located at the port. He also announced the creation of a specialized team that would be given advanced training for responding to shipboard fires at the port.

In addition, a state lawmaker introduced legislation requiring mandatory marine firefighting training for all New Jersey firefighters.

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