First of three parts
The radio transmissions grew increasingly desperate.
“We have to get a line… We have fire on the 10th floor.”
“We got 50-foot flames! We have multiple cars on fire…”
“You’re coming in unreadable.”
For a time, there was silence. Then the unthinkable:
“We can’t find our way out!”
Long seconds ticked by.
Someone finally called out.
“Did you just hear Engine 16′s last transmission? Be advised it sounded like he said he cannot find his way back out…”
The chilling mayday call quickly launched a desperate search as firefighters waged a hellish battle deep inside the 692-foot freighter berthed at Port Newark in an effort to find two of their missing men.
It was a battle they never saw coming. And as it turns out, one they were not prepared to fight.
Before the night was over, veteran Newark firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr., 49, would be dead after they became entrapped within a burning vessel loaded with 1,200 highly combustible junk cars and trucks bound for West Africa. Their deaths on that warm summer night would raise a host of questions as to what went wrong and whether the department even had a strategy for fighting a ship fire.
The cause of the July 5th fire aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio is 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. It could take a year or more before their findings are made public.
But an investigation by NJ Advance Media raises disturbing questions about the fire department’s actions that night and its ability to handle a major emergency on the waterfront.
The investigation 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 the state’s largest city was unprepared to fight a major fire at one of the nation’s largest ports.
“They showed up that night and there wasn’t anyone who knew what was going on,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science and public management at John Jay College in New York and a former assistant fire chief who serves on the Fire Code Advisory Council for New Jersey. “It was something that overwhelmed them. It’s tragic.”
Acabou and Brooks were the first Newark firefighters to perish in the line of duty in more than 20 years, according to union officials.
Newark Public Safety Director Fritz G. Fragé, who oversees the fire department, declined to respond to questions regarding the department’s response to the fire beyond the statements the city issued in the immediate wake of the incident, saying through a spokeswoman that he would “defer responding to new media inquiries regarding this incident to the time when the investigation is completed.”
In fact, what happened in Port Newark came after the city and its public safety department for years seemingly ignored the potential for disaster in a place where firefighters rarely go, the months-long investigation revealed:
- Newark firefighters and command officers, responsible for helping safeguard one of the country’s busiest ports, had minimal training for dealing with shipboard fires — an always complex and dangerous undertaking in hostile and unfamiliar environments. Despite claims about the department’s readiness, city officials acknowledged that beyond a classroom session earlier this year on electric vehicle fire safety, the last shipboard training attended by firefighters was nearly a decade ago.
- Command officers appeared to have no knowledge of even basic shipboard firefighting, unaware of the need to use an adapter, readily available on every ocean-going cargo vessel, to connect their hoses with the ship’s onboard water supply system, the internal reports obtained by NJ Advance Media showed. That allowed the fire to spread, firefighting experts said, since the ship’s own hoses were not nearly big enough to handle the volume of water needed to knock down the flames.
- Firefighters were sent deep into the ship the night of the incident — even after command officers were told that the crew of 28 had all been accounted for and that no lives were at stake, according to those reports — rather than simply containing the fire, cooling it down, and suppressing it, as response teams, New York City fireboats and a private salvage company would later ultimately do.
- Newark had no written plan of action for fighting marine fires, according to fire union officials who remain highly critical of the department in the wake of the firefighter deaths. City officials acknowledged there was no such plan.
- The city over the years failed to marshal resources and maintain critical equipment needed to respond to such disasters, records show. On the night of the blaze, Newark’s main fireboat was out of service, unable to even start, according to union and city officials. Yet no one sought the assistance of the Fire Department of New York and the FDNY’s powerful fleet of fireboats until hours had gone by, reports show.
- Missing in action as well that night was the department’s Cascade Unit — a specialized truck able to quickly refill the air cylinders needed to keep firefighters alive. Department officials said it was undergoing a scheduled upgrade at the time.
Those issues all played out against the backdrop of the Port of New York and New Jersey, which has expanded exponentially over the years with the arrival of larger and larger cargo ships. But even as the port grew to become the one of the busiest in the nation, it did not seem to be on the radar of anyone responsible for public safety.
“It’s clear the Newark Fire Department had no program in place to adequately train firefighters for shipboard fires — a known threat, given the largest port on the East Coast is in its city,” said Edward Kelly, a Boston firefighter and general president of the Washington-based International Association of Fire Fighters, the national union that represents the city’s firefighters. “Had the department been better prepared on July 5, we might have seen a different response.”
Indeed, the port seemed to be an afterthought for decades. Former city officials noted that a firehouse that had long served the Port Newark area at Doremus Avenue and Port Street could have responded to the scene far more quickly with a trained marine firefighting unit. But it closed down in 1983 in a cost-cutting measure and was never reopened.
Mayor Ras Baraka said although the city was asked to refrain from commenting on details of the Port Newark fire pending the ongoing investigation, he, too, wanted answers.
“I don’t think it’s possible for a mayor, or any public safety leader who’s experienced the devastation and heartbreak we’ve had, to not want to understand every reason, answer, and recommendation so it never happens again,” he said. “We owe that to Fire Captains Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr., and all their loved ones.”
In the meantime, in the wake of questions by NJ Advance Media, the mayor said that the city had plans to form a port emergency response team.
The ship fire, though, exposed other critical shortcomings well beyond those of Newark.
New Jersey officials said the state does not even have an accredited certification program for marine and shipboard firefighting. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region’s ports, itself does not train firefighters who are expected to respond there, agency officials said.
The fire cast a worrying light as well on a growing, largely unfettered trade in the export of second hand cars and trucks, which served to fuel the hot-burning fire that took six days to extinguish.
Two years ago, the NTSB issued a warning that such cars “are often damaged and present an elevated fire risk of fire” due to the potential for leaking fluids and electrical faults. Yet it noted that the transportation of used vehicles aboard ships such as the one that burned in Port Newark, with stowage areas supposedly designed for carrying wheeled cargo, was exempted from hazardous materials rules.
Federal regulators have not taken any action to change that, documents show.
The situation aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio seemed well under control when firefighters were initially called at about 9:20 p.m. to Berth 18, where the bright yellow-and-white Italian-flagged freighter was docked.
There was initially little emotion in the radio transmissions that night, as dozens of Newark firefighters first converged on the scene.
Several of the cars on board that were lashed to the top-most weather deck of the ship were burning. But the deputy chief told dispatch he had two lines working and had already knocked down the flames. He dismissed a call to North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue for mutual aid as unnecessary.
“I don’t believe we’re going to need them,” he radioed.
Two levels down, however, a nightmare was unfolding on Deck 10 where the fire had started. There were reports of smoke coming from the vast compartment that held hundreds of additional cars and other vehicles, all tightly secured to the floor with little space between them.
With the ship’s crew all accounted for and in no danger, a battalion chief who saw smoke coming up the stern loading ramp at the rear of the vessel later wrote that he decided to see “exactly what we had.” Taking several lengths of spare hose line and two fire companies with him, he headed down a stairway from the top deck to investigate.
“We knew that something had to still be burning,” he wrote in a report detailing his actions that night.
Through the smoke on the lower deck, flames could be seen coming from two burning cars stowed inside as the firefighters came down the stairway.
The firefighters, who had no experience dealing with shipboard emergencies, then did what they are trained to do when a house or apartment building is burning.
They rushed into the compartment to put it out.
After extinguishing the two cars inside, they continued searching for the source of the thickening smoke that soon made visibility all but impossible. Unable to see, the fire hose they had used would serve as a lifeline to guide them back out the door of the compartment.
Not long afterward, however, something went terribly wrong. The radio traffic grew increasingly tense as the situation rapidly deteriorated. At least four firefighters became disoriented in the worsening conditions. Some couldn’t find the fire hose.
Dispatchers then heard the first call for help.
While two of the men eventually made their way out to safety, Acabou and Brooks would remain missing.
A fire erupts
The blaze aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio apparently began when a 16-year-old Jeep Wrangler caught fire while pushing an inoperable Toyota Venza onto the ship, according to court documents. The flames rapidly spread to the hundreds of cars and trucks on board being exported to Africa, some of them not much more than wrecks on wheels.
Grimaldi Deep Sea, the owner of the Grande Costa d’Avorio, said what happened was not its fault. In a federal court filing in Newark, the company — which has said little since the incident — wrote that it had “exercised due diligence to make and maintain the vessel in all respects seaworthy, and the vessel was, in fact, tight, staunch and strong, and fully and property manned, equipped and supplied.”
Ports America of Jersey City, which operates the terminal at Port Newark where the ship was being loaded and owned the Wrangler that allegedly burst into flames, said through a spokeswoman that the ongoing investigation “is confidential,” and still “very much underway.”
But lawyers for American Maritime Services of New York, the stevedoring company responsible for loading the cars aboard the vessel, have already indicated in court proceedings that the actions of Newark Fire Department would be part of any litigation yet to come.
“This was a small fire that turned into a really big fire. I want to know what their firefighting training was,” said attorney John Karpousis, representing American Maritime, during a hearing in August before U.S. District Judge Evelyn Padin in Newark, in seeking of an order to preserve evidence related to the ship, its fire suppression systems and its crew.
In an early morning press conference just hours after the bodies of the two firefighters were recovered on July 6, Newark Fire Chief Rufus Jackson acknowledged that shipboard firefighting was a unique skill and not one his department typically faces.
“But it’s in the city, and we have members — brave men and women of the Newark fire department — that go out and they put this uniform on and they fight fires and protect homes and save life in the city of Newark every single day,” he said, choking up as he spoke about the two men he had lost. “Although this is a difficult fire, a different type of fire, they are still willing to put themselves on the line for others every day.”
Jackson was named the city’s assistant public safety director in September, nearly three months after the Port Newark blaze, in a move the mayor’s office said was unrelated to the fire.
The internal incident reports provided to NJ Advance Media, though, underscored the department’s lack of experience and unfamiliarity with shipboard fire operations.
Two fire captains, one of whom found Acabou trapped inside the ship, were blunt about the department’s failure to prepare for disaster.
“I have not had any training on how to fight a fire aboard a ship, or have been on a cargo ship,” one of them wrote in his report.
The other complained that there were “no written standard operating procedures on shipboard firefighting” — a roadmap or game plan for how to deal to such incidents and what to expect — and that he had never taken any technical or operational classes in marine firefighting operations.
Neither man responded to messages seeking comment left through union officials.
In other reports, complaints that the department had been unable to connect to the ship’s internal fire protection system during the early stages of the incident served as further evidence regarding the department’s apparent lack of knowledge about battling fires aboard seagoing vessels.
Like many multi-story buildings, ships are typically laced with internal piping called standpipes that allow water to be pumped inside to extinguish fires. They essentially serve as hydrants where hoses can be connected on any deck without the need to drag them up and down stairways.
The ships are required to carry a universal adapter known as an international shore connection, or ISC, which firefighters can use in an emergency to tie directly into those standpipes to feed water lines throughout the ship no matter the size of the hose. In fact, some fire companies, including those in nearby Bayonne, carry those adapters on their trucks. Officials for the shipping line said the Grande Costa d’Avorio also had an adapter on board.
Newark firefighters appeared to have no clue that an adapter was both necessary and available, according to the incident reports. They knew only that their hoses could not connect to the ship’s fire protection system and they could not get the water pressure needed to fight back the flames, likening the situation to fighting a house fire with a small garden hose.
“Members were only able to use the hand-lines supplied on the ship, which did not produce enough gallonage needed to contain this fire,” wrote Deputy Chief Alfonse Carlucci, the Port Newark incident commander, in his written account of the fire, which was among the 20 reports obtained by NJ Advance Media. “Efforts to use our hose were impossible as they use metric-size fittings and our hose connections would not fit.”
That was a huge problem for firefighters.
The ship’s hoses were only 1-inch diameter, more suitable for putting out dumpster fires in the industrial port, according to Anthony Tarantino, the former president of the Newark Fire Officers Union. They needed to blast far greater volumes of water if they were to have had any chance of beating back the flames, and that would have required the use of the department’s own larger hoses, he said.
Chief Jackson echoed Carlucci’s complaints in his own separate report on the ship fire. Firefighters, he said, “were not able to use the onboard standpipe suppression system because the thread from our hose lines were different.”
Those comments made it clear to Capt. Morgan McManus — a veteran mariner who now serves as master of the training ship Empire State at State University of New York Maritime College in New York City — that the Newark Fire Department never familiarized itself with ships that call on the port. Nor did it understand the international code that governs firefighting systems on ships.
“Other departments I have worked with will not use ships’ equipment. They will run their own lines to avoid this issue altogether,” he said.
The department, citing the continuing investigation, declined to make Carlucci or any other command officers available for interviews.
In response to questions of firefighter training, the city said the Department of Public Safety “ensures the Newark Fire Division is continually training and maintaining prepared awareness for the vast array of possible fire incidents,” and that since the port fire, there have been meetings to improve coordination between Port Authority and the Newark Fire Division.
“More meetings and trainings are scheduled,” Newark officials said.
They added that the Public Safety Department was “constantly enhancing operational needs to remain ahead of ongoing changes in hazards that are presented on a daily basis.”
A dangerous environment
The problems that confronted the Newark Fire Department are not unique. Few firefighters in departments with responsibility for many of the nation’s ports have a great deal of know-how or training in ship fires, according to Douglas Dillon, executive director of the Tri-state Maritime Safety Association and chief of the Delaware/New Jersey/Pennsylvania Maritime Incident Response Team.
“Most departments have trouble getting that training,” said Dillon, a 23-year U.S. Coast Guard veteran. “Most don’t have specialized marine teams.”
Yet most port authorities do not have dedicated fire departments, according to Shawn Balcomb, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Association of Port Authorities. Instead, he said they “work closely with local authorities and coast guard offices to train and prepare for emergencies.”
In addition to not having the same water supply connections commonly used by fire departments, ships present an unknown environment to firefighters who can get lost trying to make their way through dark compartments or cargo holds the size of gymnasiums, observed Dillon. All the familiar tactics about firefighting inside a building don’t always hold in a steel box on the water, he added.
That lack of knowledge remains fresh in the mind of Allen Huelsenbeck, the retired deputy chief of operations for the Wilmington Fire Department in Delaware and director of the Tri-State Maritime Safety Association, more than 30 years after fire swept through a 575-foot banana boat in the Port of Wilmington in 1989.
Huelsenbeck had been in command of the response at the time and he recalled of the 14-hour struggle to extinguish the blaze that started in the engine room of the 12,000-ton Cypriot freighter Centaurus, loaded with fruit from Central America.
“Four of my personnel were trapped below deck and we almost lost them,” he said. “I realized then how much I didn’t know about marine firefighting.”
A descent into a typical freighter emphasizes the dangers firefighters face.
In a ship’s engine room, handrails can remain hot to the touch long after the everything is powered down. Even tied up to the dock, the space is filled by the noise of diesel generators. Catwalks bridge dangerous heights, connected by narrow ladders, while equipment is jammed everywhere, increasing the danger of being trapped.
Compounding the risk in Port Newark was the cargo the Grande Costa d’Avorio had on board. Car fires can be notoriously tough to fight, according to McManus, whose job with New York Maritime College includes training cadets to respond to fires aboard ship. Making things even worse at Port Newark, he added, was that those cars were burning in an enclosed garage-like space.
“Any land-based unit that might have the responsibility of responding to a fire on a ship should have some basic shipboard firefighting training — whether it be at a fire school or on board a vessel while in port, either would be a plus,” he said.
In Bayonne, fire officials there say the city became far more serious about regular shipboard training following the 2004 inauguration of the Cape Liberty Cruise Port, where thousands of Royal Caribbean passengers regularly embark on voyages to Bermuda and the Caribbean. Bayonne is also home to a major container terminal.
Two months after the fire at Port Newark, a short drive away on the other side of Newark Bay, firefighters in Bayonne were joined by members of the Jersey City Fire Department in a long-planned exercise aboard the USNS Watkins, a Military Sealift Command ship sitting in a Bayonne dry dock, to practice shipboard firefighting skills following a classroom session with Huelsenbeck and Dillon.
“You can see from the size of it that it’s just challenging,” said Bayonne Fire Chief Keith Weaver as he stood in the long shadow cast by the Watkins, a hulking transport vessel the length of three football fields. Inside, he described a very difficult environment. There are no windows to break to get the smoke out. The steel compartments trap and magnify the heat. And the narrow stairways make it difficult to bring in hoses and equipment.
In the exercise aboard the Watkins they would board the vessel, bringing in their own hoses — not willing to trust the condition of any ship equipment, explained Brian Kaczka, Bayonne’s battalion chief of training. The lights were kept off, leaving them in the dark. Just like the smoke-filled deck aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio.
What makes ship fires particularly complex is that every vessel is different, each a maze of unfamiliar corridors with no exit signs, said Battalion Chief Robert Seeburger Jr., a 31-year veteran of the Bayonne Fire Department.
“I’ve been on cruises. It takes me days to learn the layout of the ship,” he remarked. In a ship fire, he said, “there’s minutes to figure it all out.”
Some cities, like New York, have specialized marine response units. The city’s fire department also has a shipboard fire simulator as a classroom. The four-story, 132-foot-long facility on Randall’s Island, funded through a $3.3 million federal grant, made its debut in 2014 and gives firefighters a feel for working inside the tight confines of an ocean-going vessel.
Still, fires in the nation’s ports are rare. Before the fire aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio, Newark officials could recall only three incidents in recent memory involving a ship — one in 2017 and two in 2018. One of those calls involved the use of the city’s fireboat to extinguish a barge fire. Another involved a small generator fire on a boat, they said. None required below-deck entries.
The call to respond to Port Newark, though, has always been Newark’s responsibility. The Port Authority itself, like most port entities across the country, does not have its own fire brigade and depends on local fire departments for the protection of its marine terminals through agreements with Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne, and Jersey City in New Jersey. In New York, the FDNY covers the port facilities in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Newark officials have repeatedly stated that its Fire Division was adequately trained to fight the July fire. “Our firefighters are trained extensively, and they use this training when responding to any alarm,” the administration said within days of the tragedy.
At a ceremony welcoming a new class of firefighters two weeks after the fire, the mayor lashed out publicly regarding the issue. “Those men didn’t die because people were cowardly, or they didn’t act the way they should act. Everybody did what the hell they were supposed to do based on their training,” Baraka said.
Records obtained by NJ Advance Media, though, raise questions.
When asked for specific details about shipboard training, Newark pointed to a session as recently as this past June conducted by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, which focused on electric vehicles and the difficulty in extinguishing lithium-ion battery fires. It was a lesson that had apparently been driven home. Battalion commanders and deputy chiefs on scene the night of the Port Newark fire could be heard repeatedly requesting a manifest to determine if there were any electric vehicles on board. There were none.
What they held up by Newark as an example of ship fire training, however, was a classroom tabletop exercise at the city’s Office of Emergency Management on Orange Street, according to the state officials who conducted the session. No one went anywhere near a ship that day, officials said.
Yet when there was the opportunity to actually train in the port two years ago, the city did not participate, state records show. That series of emergency response exercises for firefighters was held at the container terminals in Elizabeth and Bayonne in April, October, and November of 2021, according to New Jersey Homeland Security facilitators. Officials said the training drew fire companies from Elizabeth and Bayonne. Even members of the Fire Department of New York participated.
According to documents provided by the state under public records requests, however, not a single Newark firefighter attended.
Asked why firefighters did not participate in that training, city officials cited the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that “various protocols were in place” to maintain the safety of residents and city personnel at the time.
In response to criticism by union officials regarding its June 2023 classroom training, the city said despite implications that “it was somehow inferior training,” the sessions included instruction on coordinating with crew members, working in confined spaces, tie downs and lashing hazards, tripping hazards, “and basic ship awareness.” Had that training actually taken place aboard a ship, said the city, “that vessel’s deck and cargo configuration would never be duplicated anywhere else.”
Officials added that it was “simplistic and naïve to think that training in one vessel, as a one-size-fits-all operation” was sufficient.
“Similar to residential fires and commercial fires, shipboard fires present a wide array of hazards due to the nature of varying differences in layouts, equipment, and technology. Shipboard fires, in particular, are highly complex due to the compartmentalization and structure of cargo, the design of the ships, changes in technology, and other infrastructure challenges that create unlimited hazards that are constantly evolving,” said the city.
The last time the city’s firefighters specifically trained for shipboard incidents, though, was back in 2014, Newark officials themselves acknowledged. Fire union officials called that inadequate, noting the almost half of city’s frontline firefighters joined the department after that training.
Tarantino, who retired as president of the Newark Fire Officers Union in September after 34 years on the job, said fire departments “must regularly train for the unique hazards in their communities, including the largest shipping port on the East Coast.”
He was aware of just one battalion chief still on the job who had attended any specific marine fire training and that was even prior to the 2014 exercise at the port.
“It was a three- to four-day course, but he only went for one day. They didn’t send him back when they learned they had to pay for it,” the union official recalled.
‘A 12-story building in a tin can…’
The situation at Port Newark, said Tarantino, had been handled like the kind of conventional fire they see every day, with deputy chiefs seemingly unmindful that it was burning in a steel box with few openings that made even radio transmissions difficult.
“We fought it as if it were a 12-story building,” he said. “It’s a 12-story building in a tin can.”
If there had been an approved shipboard fire protocol and standard operating guidelines — basically a manual of what to do in such situations — he believed they would have approached things differently.
In response to a public records request specifically seeking that plan, the city initially responded only that “no responsive document exists.” Officials later admitted Newark in fact had no standard operating guidelines for marine firefighting.
“The Newark Fire Division maintains general standard operating guidelines/procedures for combatting fire incidents. The unique and varying aspects of each individual fire do not allow for a cookie-cutter procedure for each incident,” the city said in a statement. “The ultimate goal is the preservation of life and property.”
Yet such a game plan can be crucial, experts say. Corbett, the associate professor from John Jay College, said shipboard firefighting is just not something just any firefighter gets in normal training.
“It’s highly specialized stuff,” he pointed out. “We don’t think about marine firefighting very much, but it’s a low-frequency high-consequence thing. While it doesn’t happen very often, it can be incredibly dangerous.”
Tarantino pointed out as well that while fire departments all around Newark are “amazingly proactive” in training firefighters for shipboard fires and offer similar training for their bravest, he claimed Newark itself never responds to those invitations. Why was that? He claimed the city just doesn’t want to pay the cost, nor is it willing send people out of city because of a manpower shortage.
Even in routine training, the department denies overtime. An April directive to officers and members of the Newark Fire Department reviewed by NJ Advance Media regarding a state-mandated incident command program specifically carried a notation: “No overtime shall be issued for attending the classes. Members shall sign up for classes on their own time.”
The city in response said only that it “maintains a yearly overtime budget for the allocation of funding to ensure staffing, training, and personnel needs are adequately met.”
It also saw no impact as a result of the 1983 closure of the former Port Newark fire house.
“The response time to the July 5 Port Newark Fire was not an issue,” officials said in their responses to NJ Advance Media. “The Newark Fire Division has not had issues with either proper response times or adequate personnel to Port Newark incidents.”
The lack of training and strategic planning were not the city’s only shortcomings when firefighters were called to respond to the burning freighter. The Newark Fire Department’s Cascade Unit, which responds to emergency scenes with equipment to quickly refill the air cylinders needed to keep firefighters alive, was also unavailable that night.
Newark acknowledged the unit was out of service due to a previously scheduled upgrade under the Urban Area Security Initiative program, a federally funded initiative that assists high-threat, high-density urban areas in anti-terrorism efforts.
Its absence, though, was no small thing, complained firefighters.
“Oxygen is critical in every fire,” Tarantino said.
In addition, even the main Newark Fire Department fireboat was not operational that night, city officials confirmed.
Newark acquired the water cannon-equipped fireboat years ago through a federal grant. While a critical tool for fighting fires, though, it seldom leaves its dock these days, according to Tarantino and others. Tied up not far from where the Grande Costa d’Avorio burned, its hull faded from the sun, the boat was in the water but not able to get underway the night of the fire. That was not unusual. It is constantly down for maintenance and repairs, say firefighters.
Newark acknowledged the fireboat had been out of service when fire broke out aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio. In response to questions, officials issued a statement saying only that “it was not feasible to deploy a fireboat in response to the port fire due to the cargo ship’s height. Our strategy called for firefighters to be used on the ground, not in the water utilizing fireboats.”
However, a fireboat’s usefulness is not just about having a boat on the water. Salvatore Mercogliano, a maritime fire expert and associate professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., said a fireboat is manned by a trained marine crew that can be brought to a ship fire, rather than placing a conventional engine company on board. And the fireboat itself serves as a pumping station.
“The boat’s role would have been not only cooling the hull, but pumping large diameter hoses which could have been used by firefighters to fight the fire onboard and not rely on the ship’s fire gear,” Mercogliano explained.
If Newark’s fireboat had conked out, he said the FDNY’s big Ranger 4200 class fireboats just across the river, which are able to throw enormous amounts of water — and even more when used as pumping stations for firefighters on the pier — certainly should have been deployed at the onset.
The New York fireboats were eventually requested by Newark. They did not arrive on the scene until well after midnight, according to the department’s dispatch logs.
By that time, Acabou and Brooks were already missing on board the Grande Costa d’Avorio.
Tomorrow: A desperate race against time