Port Fire Out but Basic Facts still Murky

Six days after the line of duty deaths of Newark firefighters, Augusto Acabou, 45, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49 the fire aboard the Grande Costa D’Avorio docked in Port Newark is finally out but basic questions about the response continue to proliferate and officials are deflecting with the standard ‘it’s under investigation.’

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. Five firefighters were also injured.

The fire is just the latest in stressors in the relationship between Newark and the Port Authority. Ironbound residents and community groups have long complained about the extensive air pollution generated by the port’s operation.  The City of Newark, itself fiscally handicapped by the reality that 70 percent of its land is tax exempt, has claimed it’s shortchanged by the bi-state agency that occupies a large swath of its land mass.

At the July 11 U.S. Coast Guard press conference to announce that the fire aboard the massive cargo ship had finally been extinguished, Capt. Zeita Merchant, the commander of the Port of New York and New Jersey, was asked for basic details about the initial response and offered reporters a circuitous response.

“Well, some of that information specifically what you are asking for is under investigation because we do need to closely look at that timeline to see what happened—what information was passed at that point in time—I can’t share that information with you,” Merchant told reporters. “What I can share is that it will be part of the investigation and that information will help inform how information flows in the future to make sure that specifically our first responders have the information they need so they can get on scene. At this time, I apologize I can’t share these details, but it will be part of the investigation.”

The U.S. Coast Guard, which leads the Unified Command for the incident, limited the press conference to five minutes.

Meanwhile, NorthJersey.com’s Liam Quinn reported that even before Firefighters Acabou and Wayne Brooks had been buried, their union held a press conference at which Newark Firefighters Union President Michael Giunta told reporters the union wanted “to shine a light on the neglect” that he said the fire department had “endured” under the Baraka administration.

“Giunta was joined by Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union, and Edward Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, among other members of the city’s firefighter union,” according to the newspaper. “The trio said the neglect is a combination of understaffing, regular apparatus failures and inadequate training, and they laid it at the feet of the city’s administration.”

Union members complained about short staffing “which have led to the closures of multiple firehouses. On the night of the Port Newark fire, the city’s fireboat wouldn’t start,” the newspaper reported. “Union officials also highlighted old equipment, including trucks older than some of the firefighters. The average age of the department’s apparatus is 24, and some of its firehouses are over a century old.”

The IAFF’s Kelly told reporters that the public didn’t need to wait for “a 12- to 24-month investigation to see that the Newark Fire Department is being neglected. It is well below standard, and it is dangerous for the citizens and the firefighters. We need a change. That’s the message.”

In short order, Mayor Ras Baraka fired back.

“While their families and firefighter colleagues are emotionally processing these losses through their grief, it saddens me that the fidelity of the Newark Fire Division is being questioned,” Baraka wrote. “Statements issued to the media at a time when our fallen heroes have yet to be honored by funeral services, are unconscionable, divisive, and only add insult to the injury that the families and our City is already experiencing.

Baraka continued. “I find accusations of intentional understaffing and insufficient training of our public safety personnel very hurtful, and a personal affront to everything my administration and I stand for. I find the timing very questionable.”

Baraka committed to a “constructive communication one on one with the union, removed from public forum, in addition to a press conference regarding all these matters after we lay these men to rest. Anything else is inappropriate.”

It’s important to recall that on the night that the firefighters perished Baraka was on the scene. During that press briefing, the Newark Mayor 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.”

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of the Newark firefighters, fire science experts were reluctant to speak on the record publicly second guessing the command decisions made at the scene. But firefighters with marine firefighting experience confirm the first thing they seek to establish from the master of a vessel is whether or not there’s anyone left on board the ship that’s on fire because maritime firefighting is such a perilous business that lives should only be put at risk to save lives.

Andy Ansbro, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association which represents the FDNY’s rank and file firefighters, has spent much of his career assigned to the department’s marine division’s fireboats.

In an interview with InsiderNJ, Ansbro recalled that several years ago the FDNY conducted intensive ship firefighting drills at SUNY Maritime College and in “scenario after scenario” the instructor observed the likelihood of “a body count of lost firefighters.”

“What they learned was that you don’t go into those things unless there is a known life hazard– that you can get to them and get them out quickly—other than that—you are going to lose people [firefighters],” Ansbro said. “You do what you can, but you don’t go too far…. Maritime is heavily insured so there’s not even a money aspect. Realistically, you’re just saving the insurance company money at that time.”

Historically, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have been at odds with the FDNY going back to the agency’s initial resistance to putting fire sprinklers in the World Trade Center and the agency’s insistence that it was exempt from the New York City fire code as an independent sovereign entity.

The public reporting on just what Newark firefighters knew, or their situational awareness, that Wednesday night when they were dispatched to the Grande Costa D’Avorio is contradictory. At Tuesday’s union press conference, union officials said that responding firefighters didn’t know whether anyone was on board when they arrived on the scene.

But NorthJersey.com columnist Mike Kelly reports that “as the firefighters arrived, they were not greeted by sailors screaming for help from the ship’s top deck. In fact, the 28-man crew had already escaped unharmed.”

Kelly continued. “The point here is that Newark’s firefighters were not sent into danger to save anyone’s life. They were essentially ordered to board a darkened ship to extinguish flames that were burning used cars.” 

While the Newark fire union and the Baraka administration face off, consider that as a long-standing matter of policy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a multi-billion-dollar sovereign entity, leaves the hazardous business of maritime firefighting to local municipalities.

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. But even that has been problematic.

In 2013, the bistate agency was fined $3.5 million by the FAA for what then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood described as “egregious” violations at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty and Teterboro airports of the regulator’s fire and rescue requirements that first responders be properly trained.

In the settlement agreement the Port Authority was cited for “a history of repeated noncompliance with the ARFF [Air Rescue Firefighting] personnel training requirements that “led to the execution of a Consent Order between the FAA and the PANYNJ on February 27, 2006.”

At the U.S. Coast Guard’s July 7 press briefing Beth Rooney, the Port Authority’s director of ports, gave the impression that matters were well in hand.

“One of the major lessons learned from 9/11 as we evaluated the overall risk to the Port and Port community was an understanding of the unique environment, as has been described several times, marine firefighting is a very complex and challenging environment,” Rooney told reporters.

Rooney added that back in 2002 she was “the founding chair” of a task force “that allows us to ensure that [fire] departments have the proper marine firefighting resources, and we also provide training.”

Rooney left open the possibility her agency might review its policy of sole reliance on local municipal fire companies. “As the investigations unfold, and we get lessons learned from these, everything is on the table,” Rooney said.

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.”

According to the Coast Guard timeline the Newark firefighters were dispatched at around 9:30 pm on July 5 to cargo vessel. Firefighters from Hudson, Union, Essex, and Bergen also responded. InsiderNJ 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.

“This really speaks to the need for a permanent training for shipboard firefighting but also beyond that a fusion center for information stuff,” said Glenn Corbett, assistant professor of Fire Science at John Jay. “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.”

“It’s my belief that every city that has a corresponding port of that city should have a full, trained and sufficient marine firefighting force,” the UFA’s Ansbro said.

This week, NJ.com reported that Gov. Murphy voiced interest in the creation of a Port Authority marine firefighting capability. “That’s something that does need to be addressed,” Gov. Murphy told reporters earlier this week, according to NJ.com. “Someone reminded me that way back when, airports didn’t have their own dedicated fire force under the theory that they didn’t have fires happening that frequently. But the fact of the matter is, it is a very specific expertise. Some fires do happen. They’re substantial. That’s probably not a bad model to look at.” 

The Port’s increasing volume would certainly seem to justify it.

Port Technology International reports that the Port of New York and New Jersey has solidified “its status as the second busiest port in America, the year-to-date container volumes at the port have reached 8,157,584 TEU, an increase of 7.3 per cent from the 7,455,786 TEU handled in the same period in 2021.”

Moreover, “as the number of containers passing through the US West Coast ports continues to decline, the Port of New York and New Jersey continued to hold the top rank as the busiest in the nation for a third consecutive month,” PTI reported.

Indeed, the Port of New York and New Jersey saw a 19 percent spike in cargo volume in October 2022 over what it booked pre-pandemic in October 2019.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

TOP – U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Zeita Merchant, the captain of the port and federal on-scene coordinator, addresses the media during a press conference in front of the motor vessel Grande Costa D’Avorio in Port Newark, New Jersey, July 11, 2023. 

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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6 responses to “Port Fire Out but Basic Facts still Murky”

  1. As always Bob, your first rate reporting brings into focus the story behind the headlines, shining a light on flaws in our systems while also offering viable ways of avoiding such terrible disasters in the future. My deep condolences to the families of the fallen Newark firefighters. We cannot undue this tragic loss, but your article will hopefully push the powers -that -be to make necessary changes to prevent future tragedies such as this. Thank you for your reliable truthful reporting. We need more journalists like you .

  2. Superb reporting again, drilling down on the systemic management framework and exposing egregious flaws that demand reforms.

    Who is conducting the “investigation”? It is outrageous that there appears to be no commitment to transparency. With no transparency there is no accountability and no learning to correct errors.

    NTSB conducts investigations that are released publicly. Will this investigation Report be released?

    Why isn’t Gov. Murphy demanding federal oversight?

    The NJ Congressional delegation should hold hearings and demand an Inspector General and/or current version of the old Office of Technology Assessment investigations of the coast guard. The programs at other major ports could be compared to the NY Port’s.

    Stay on top of this, Bob, you are doing great work!

  3. I had exactly one professional interaction with the Port Authority and came away astonished by the corruption.

    I was the DEP staffer for the $48 million DEP loan to the Port/Essex COunty’s Newark garbage incinerator back in the 1980’s.

    The State Deputy Attorney General who reviewed the final draft loan agreement found that it violated the NJ Constitution, because the funding source was created by a Constitutional ballot measure than required a low interest loan, and the draft loan was structured as a grant (there were arbitrage and federal tax law issues as well).

    When the DAG advised the Port/County representative (a retired County Judge named Curtis Meanor), he freaked out, claimed that the loan was the result of a handshake deal between NY Gov. Cuomo and NJ Gov. Kean, and demanded she call her boss AG Cary Edwards.

    The State loan team left the room and the DAG called AG Edwards. During the call, her face went ghost white. We immediately returned to the meeting room. The DAG then said the State approved the loan, signed it and we all walked out in silence with our tails between our legs.

    True story. It was my first taste of large scale corruption.

  4. Bob – I’ve filed OPRA requests for DEP after incident reports and investigations of wildfires in the Pinelands.

    DEP denied them as exempt under OPRA.

    I smell a similar coverup underway here. NJ Legislature could hold hearings too.

  5. One more point: after the Passaic City chemical fire where the City dodged a HUGE bullet, Gov. Murphy issued a lame toothless Executive Order allegedly promoting reforms.

    Subsequently, there was Senate legislation introduced to improve chemical safety – it has died in the Senate Budget Committee. Let me know if you want links to all the details.

  6. It is astonishing that the responsibility for putting out a fire on a cargo ship in the port of Newark fell to the Newark Fire Dept. Hennelly’s reporting adds important context to what is at best a massive failure of leadership at the highest level. Shameful that two firefighters died.

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