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Families of fallen N.J. firefighters file $50M lawsuit over cargo ship fire

Wrongful death lawsuit claims the city failed to properly train, equip Newark firefighters


Newark Department of Public Safety via AP

By Ted Sherman

NEWARK, N.J. — The families of two firefighters who perished last July aboard a burning cargo ship at Port Newark have filed a $50 million wrongful death complaint in federal court that charges negligence, carelessness and recklessness on the part of the city, the shipping company and others led to the untimely deaths of the men.

The lawsuit, filed late Thursday, claimed Newark failed to properly train and equip the veteran firefighters to deal with the dangerous conditions they faced aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio when fire swept through the car-carrying vessel. It also alleged its owners, Grimaldi Deep Sea of Naples, Italy, operated the ship in an “unreasonably dangerous and unseaworthy condition.”

Also named in the lawsuit was the terminal operator where the ship was berthed and the company that loaded thousands of used vehicles on board, along with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Port Newark.

Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr ., 49, died on the night of July 5 after they were trapped on Deck 10 of the freighter filled with 1,200 highly combustible junk cars and trucks bound for West Africa.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the NTSB — the National Transportation Safety Board — as well as state, local and other federal agencies. Hearings were held earlier this year.

But a months-long inquiry by NJ Advance Media found that the state’s largest city was unprepared to fight a major fire at one of the nation’s largest ports. That report was based on interviews with firefighters and marine fire experts, public records and court filings, hours of radio traffic, and harrowing internal incident reports that were only provided after attorneys for the news organization compelled Newark to release them. It found that Newark firefighters and command officers responsible for helping safeguard one of the country’s busiest ports had minimal to no training for dealing with shipboard fires. Firefighters were sent deep into the ship the night of the incident — even after commanders were told that the crew of 28 had all been accounted for and that no lives were at stake, according to those incident reports — rather than simply containing the fire, cooling it down, and suppressing it, as response teams would later do.

The complaint by the families, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, charged that the city’s fire department not only failed in its training to suppress fires on board ocean-going ships, but negligently ordered firefighters to board the Grande Costa d’Avorio, “without sufficient manpower, equipment, training and/or knowledge.”

Attorney Mark Apostolos of Sullivan, Papain, Block, McManus, Coffinas & Cannavo in Hackensack, who represents the families, said no amount of money would bring back the lives of the two men.

“But this lawsuit seeks to obtain justice for the tremendous loss their families have suffered. We also hope that it serves to bring about change so this kind of tragedy never happens again,” he said.

The city, Grimaldi Deep Sea, and attorneys for Ports America, the company that oversaw the ship-loading operation and American Maritime Services, a subcontractor that conducted the ship-loading operation, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Port Authority spokesman said “We are not able to comment on ongoing litigation.”

The filing comes months after the families served notice they planned to sue.

In two weeks of hearings held in January by the Coast Guard and the NTSB, there was graphic testimony on the mistakes that were made on the night of the fire, and the hellish conditions on board as disoriented firefighters were unable to see in the thickening smoke amid closely packed vehicles tied down to the deck began running out of air as they tried to make their way out.

Michele Brooks, the widow of Wayne Brooks, and Miguel Acabou, the younger brother of Augie Acabou, who had attended those hearings every day, said much of the testimony had been “extremely upsetting” to them.

Acabou was found entangled in the lashing straps securing the vehicles on board. Search teams found Brooks against an interior column, more than 200 feet from the port stairwell, not far from an escape trunk that could have led him to safety had he known it was there.

Both had run out of air.

Even before a battalion chief made the decision to check out the conditions deep below decks aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio — an order experts testified should never have been given — there were significant problems with equipment, manpower, and a lack of knowledge about marine firefighting, hearing officers were told. Those issues, compounded by lapses by the ship’s crew as well and problems with its fire suppression system, led to tragedy as a small fire turned into a big fire.

Those who appeared before the inquiry included ranking officers of the Newark Fire Department and its former chief, members of the ship’s crew and its captain, as well as longshoremen who had been loading the 692-foot freighter.

The fire started when a 16-year-old Jeep Wrangler, modified with a steel push bar on the front, erupted in flames as it was being used to shove an inoperable Toyota Venza on board. The longshoreman behind the wheel of the Jeep said he heard a loud clunk, describing the sound like a wrench being dropped to the floor. Then he saw what looked like “flaming fireballs dripping from the bottom of the vehicle.”

That was almost certainly the last moments of a badly overheated transmission, according to Matthew Hartnett, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The ship was equipped with a CO2 fire suppression system — typically intended for emergencies while at sea — that required closing all watertight doors, evacuating the crew from those spaces, and flooding the compartments below decks with carbon dioxide to starve the fire of oxygen. But the freighter was in the process of loading vehicles when the fire broke out and crew members were unable to seal off the vessel because of a malfunctioning hatch they could not close.

The complaint argued that the inoperable fire suppression system rendered the freighter unseaworthy. It also noted that the control panel used to operate the watertight door leading to the compartment where the fire broke was inside the compartment itself. To shut the door, a crew member would have been forced to entrap themselves within the burning compartment, making the ship “defective and dangerous and otherwise unfit” for service.

The teams loading the vessel, the complaint alleged, were negligent in using a defective vehicle to push the cargo on board, “despite known mechanical issues.”

As for the city, the complaint claimed Newark failed to provide the proper training to respond to shipboard fires.

In testimony before the Coast Guard, Newark Battalion Chief Al Maresca, who had been among the first on the scene when fire broke out, said he had never before fought a shipboard fire in his 36 years with the department and never had any shipboard firefighting training.

The complaint said the fire department was negligent in ordering firefighters, including the men who died, to board a vessel and suppress a fire for which they were not sufficiently trained and or equipped to suppress, and failed to provide the appropriate manpower to fight it.

The families sought $50 million on all counts.

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