Federal investigators began several days of hearings Wednesday into a dockside cargo ship fire that killed two New Jersey firefighters last summer at one of the busiest U.S. seaports.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the July 5 blaze in which the Italian-owned Grande Costa d’Avorio caught fire in Port Newark. The vessel was carrying more than 1,200 automobiles.
Newark fire Captains Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr. died while fighting the blaze.
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.
On Tuesday, 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.
“This incident is a stark reminder of the significant hazards faced by first responders and maritime personnel every day,” he said.
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.
The families of the dead firefighters claim a malfunctioning vehicle being used to load cargo onto the ship caused the fire. They 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 the families said in October that his firm’s investigation determined a Jeep Wrangler being used to push cargo on board the ship was observed to have been emitting smoke from its engine compartment several hours before the fire began. A spokesperson for the families did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The attorney faulted the performance of two five-member firefighting teams consisting of crew members who were responsible for trying to put out the fire. He said they failed to put it out using extinguishers and hoses, and also incorrectly used a carbon-dioxide-based fire suppression system designed to extinguish a fire by depriving it of oxygen, snuffing it out.
While the system was activated, a door to the main garage on deck 12 remained open, providing the fire with continuous oxygen to sustain the flames, and rendering the fire suppression system useless, he said.
Grimaldi did not respond to a message seeking comment. The company has previously said the crew immediately activated onboard fire suppression procedures and local firefighters were called, triggering a prompt response that was crucial to containing and controlling the blaze. It also said no electric cars or hazardous cargo were on board, no fuel spills had been detected, and the stability of the ship was not compromised.
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