Newark Firefighters’ Deaths in Port Blaze Prompt Serious Questions

Forty-eight hours after fire first broke out on the massive Grande Costa D’Avorio vehicle carrier ship docked in Port Newark, firefighters were still trying to extinguish the blaze that claimed the lives of two beloved Newark firefighters, Augusto Acabou, 45, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49.

Officials say the fire could continue to burn into the weekend.

The Italian vessel is 12 stories high and was loaded with 1,200 new and used cars as well as close to 160 containers bound for West Africa.

The sprawling Port of Newark is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and includes portions of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, and Jersey City. The bistate agency does not have its own firefighting capability relying entirely on the emergency services of the host communities.

By contrast, the Port Authority is required by the FAA to maintain and fully staff at all of its airports Aircraft Rescue Firefighting units that are staffed by trained Port Authority police officers whose job it is to extract passengers and crew.

According to the Coast Guard timeline the Newark firefighters were dispatched at around 9:30 pm on July 5 to the cargo vessel. Firefighters from Hudson, Union, Essex, and Bergen also responded. InsiderNJ has confirmed that the FDNY, which has the region’s most robust marine based firefighting capability, did not get called until 12:40 a.m. July 6, with Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh approving the mutual aid response around 1 a.m.

The relationship between the Ironbound section of Newark is already strained with the bistate agency over the issue of diesel truck emissions. Historically, the City of Newark and the Port Authority have also had their issues around economic issues.

At a press conference called by the Newark Firefighters Union relatives of the fallen firefighters convulsed with grief. Relatives and co-workers described them as family men and committed public servants who loved their job. Union officials confirmed that President Biden had personally called the families of the fallen firefighters to offer condolences.

“There will be a time we address safety concerns and the issues behind our brothers’ death but today we have to focus on our brother Augie and our brother Wayne—the union is focused on the families and what they are going through right now,” Newark Firefighter Union President Michael Giunta told reporters. “Like you, I have questions. I got a lot of questions and I want answers.”

During an on scene press briefing, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told reporters he wanted “the world to know that we just lost two of our best here in the city of Newark” but added the ship-based firefighting was “something they had not trained for.”

“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,” Baraka told reporters. “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.”

“They found a working fire on the 10th floor—it was apparently five to seven vehicles fully involved [on fire],” Newark Fire Chief Rufus Jackson told reporters. “The fire quickly extended to the 11th and 12th floor. The members made an attempt to extinguish the fire and because of the intense heat they got pushed back.”

It was in the process of that retreat that the Newark firefighters lost contact with Firefighters Acabou and Brooks. The mission then became a search and rescue for two of their own.

The ill-fated response got off to a shaky start when NFD’s “Engine 16 quickly learned that their standard, 2.5-inch hose lines would not connect to equipment on the European-built ship,” reported the New York Times. “They were forced to use the vessel’s one-inch fire fighting hoses, Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka would later explain.”

Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union told the newspaper that “less water, less volume, less penetration, and less protection for the guys.”

“Its quite unfortunate we lost the lives of two of Newark’s bravest firefighters to conditions that possibly could have been prevented,” Kim Gaddy, long time Newark activist and national Environmental Justice Director for Clean Water Action, told InsiderNJ. “We need to have better communication with our fire department and the cargo ship handlers to know just what the layout is of these cargo ships so we can protect the lives of our firefighters in the future.”

Gaddy continued. “And we have to think about how long the fire has been burning—the toxics that are in the air impacting not only the firefighters from Newark and the surrounding municipalities but also the residents because its still not contained.

“We have brought all resources and capabilities to bear from across the nation for the salvage and marine firefighting response,” Coast Guard Captain of the Port Zita Merchant told reporters. “We are fully aware of the potential environmental impact including air quality and the importance of minimizing and adverse effects to the environment. Our efforts are dedicated to mitigating pollution working closely with our environmental agencies to safeguard our waterways.”

“At this time, the cause of the fire is under investigation,” the Coast Guard said in a press release. “A formal investigation will be conducted to identify what caused the fire and all parties at the federal, state, and local levels as well as the owners are working closely together during this process.”

“Access is tough–the heat is extreme,” Gordon Lorenson, a Donjon Marine Co. site manager, told reporters at the Coast Guard briefing. “It’s a steel box, so it’s a very complex situation and you need a good plan to be able to put firefighters in the vessel to actually put out these fires. It’s burning very hot, so currently a lot of the decks that are burning and the cars  that are burning our fire teams, so the best situation is to cool the vessel from the perimeter.”

“The firefighters in Newark shouldn’t be the people fighting such a huge industrial fire at the port and once again the Ironbound community was exposed to the smoke and toxics from the burning vehicles and the cargo ship,” Paula Rogovin, co-founder, of the Coalition to ban Unsafe Oil Trains, told InsiderNJ. “To me it’s such negligence not to have a well-trained maritime capable firefighting capability run by the Port Authority. To put this on the Newark Fire Department is just so wrong. It makes me so angry.”

“The Port Authority owns all these properties, but they expect the local fire departments to deal with it,” observed Glenn Corbett, assistant professor of Fire Science at John Jay. “This really speaks to the need for a permanent training for shipboard firefighting but also beyond that a fusion center for information stuff. When those Chiefs showed up at Newark the other night, they should have had the ability to say ‘ok, there’s cars in their but how is this thing laid out?’ They may have made a different decision.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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4 responses to “Newark Firefighters’ Deaths in Port Blaze Prompt Serious Questions”

  1. Wow. Very important reporting here. There need to be independent investigations and legislative hearings to document what seem to be very serious gaps in firefighting and major errors in communications and emergency response. Great work Bob!

  2. How do the banks and insurance companies that finance and cover all those billions of dollars of ships and products that pass through the Port (plus all that real estate and luxury ships in marinas) tolerate the lack of fire fighting capacity?

    My goodness, I can recall filling out residential mortgage applications that asked questions about distance to the nearest fire hydrant!

    How do the shipping and maritime and real estate interests get away with that?

    Why are there no legal mandates? Why are here no surcharges and taxes on shipping and real estate to pay for basic firefighting and emergency response? Why are there no federal and state regulatory requirements? Where is the Gov and NJ Legislature? So many questions!

  3. The article describes in humane terms the horrific tragedy for the families of the two firefighters, and then honors them and their surviving loved ones by using their Losses by exposing the flaws in the system snd offering solutions that may save the lives of other firefighters.

    My heart goes out to the families of these dedicated public servants.

  4. The article describes in humane terms the horrific tragedy for the families of the two firefighters, and then honors them and their surviving loved ones by using their Losses by exposing the flaws in the system snd offering solutions that may save the lives of other firefighters.

    Great reporting … journalism at its best. . .

    My heart goes out to the families of these dedicated public servants.

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