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‘We gotta get off the ship’: Worker testifies about deadly N.J. ship fire

Gaven Puchinsky’s testimony supports allegations by the families of the fallen Newark FFs on the cause of the fire

Fatal Cargo Ship Fire

Gaven Puchinsky is sworn in as a witness at a hearing, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Union, N.J. into a fatal cargo ship fire in Newark N.J. last July that killed two firefighters. Puchinsky testified a Jeep he was using to push vehicles onto the ship burst into flames aboard the vessel.

Wayne Parry/AP

By Wayne Perry
Associated Press

UNION, N.J. — Gaven Puchinsky had been pushing vehicles onto a huge cargo ship in one of the nation’s busiest seaports when he heard a loud “clunking” noise that he believed came from the yellow Jeep Wrangler he was using to nudge the cars up a steep ramp in Newark, New Jersey.

Within minutes, the ship would be ablaze in a July fire that claimed the lives of two Newark fire captains.

Puchinsky estimated he had pushed about 50 cars onto the Italian-owned Grande Costa d’Avorio when he heard a noise that he likened to dropping a wrench on the floor.

He had just maneuvered a vehicle into its spot on the 10th level of the 12-level ship that was carrying more than 1,200 automobiles when his co-workers began yelling to him.

“They started screaming at me to get out of the car because the car was on fire,” Puchinsky testified Wednesday at the start of a hearing by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, which are investigating the cause of the July 5 blaze. “The passenger side window was open and flames were coming in through that window. There were flaming fireballs dripping from the bottom of the vehicle.”

Puchinsky said he got out of the Jeep, ran to grab nearby fire extinguishers and emptied two onto the burning vehicle, to little effect.

“My co-workers said, ‘We gotta get off the ship,’ so I ran off the ship,” he said.

His testimony was significant because it supports allegations by the families of Newark fire Captains Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr. that the Jeep started the blaze that killed them. They say the Jeep was observed to be smoking earlier in the day, although Puchinsky said he did not witness the Jeep malfunction until it caught fire.

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

Another worker doing the same job, Austin Costanzo, said that same yellow Jeep had overheated several times while he was operating it in the months leading up to the fire. Both Costanza and Puchinsky worked for American Maritime Services of New York. Costanzo also did not mention seeing the vehicle emit smoke.

The dead firefighters’ families announced plans in October to sue The Grimaldi Group, the Italian company that owns the ship, as well as two stevedore companies involved in loading the vessel. An attorney for Grimaldi declined comment Wednesday.

A preliminary investigation by the Coast Guard and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicated that the Newark Fire Department “had little to no maritime firefighting training, experience or familiarization with cargo ships of any type,” according to a Coast Guard safety alert issued in November.

Commander Christian Barger, chief of inspections and investigations for the Fifth Coast Guard District, said 13 witnesses will testify during hearings, which will run through Jan. 18. Those testifying will include crew members from the ship, dockside cargo handlers, and firefighters.

He said the hearings aim “to meticulously examine the circumstances surrounding the causes of the fire and the subsequent deaths of Firefighters Acabou and Brooks so that we can help prevent future incidents and make the shipping and port communities safer.”

While seeking the cause of the fire, the inquiry will not seek to affix blame to anyone, Barger said. It will instead issue safety recommendations beyond those included in a Nov. 20 alert. That guidance recommended that local fire departments and ports establish regular shipboard firefighting education and training, including language translation capabilities for non-English-speaking crews.

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