July 7, 2023

2 firefighters killed in car carrier blaze at Port Newark


Two firefighters died while fighting a blaze aboard a Grimaldi roll-on/roll-off vessel berthed at Port Newark in New Jersey Wednesday night. 

Emergency personnel from the Port of New York and New Jersey as well as the New York and Newark fire departments and the U.S. Coast Guard responded to a blaze aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio that reportedly broke out at about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The Grimaldi Group, the Italian company that owns the vessel, said in a statement that the fire erupted on the ro/ro vessel’s 10th deck as vehicles were being loaded. It said the vessel was carrying more than 1,200 new and used vehicles and 157 containers but there were no electric cars or hazardous materials on the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

“The crew of the vessel immediately activated the on-board fire suppression procedures while the local firefighting service were alerted, and their prompt response played a crucial role in containing and bringing the fire under control,” Grimaldi said. 

Newark Fire Department Chief Rufus Jackson was quoted by The New York Times as saying emergency responders found five to seven vehicles on fire and that the flames quickly spread to the 11th and 12th decks of the car carrier. The fire was still smoldering Thursday morning. 

According to media reports, firefighters inside the vessel were pushed back by the intense heat. The two firefighters were lost as their fellow responders were retreating. Their bodies were later recovered. 

In a midmorning news conference Thursday, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka identified the deceased city firefighters as Augusto Acabou, 45, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49, who “without hesitation gave their lives.”

“I saw the best of our city last night, firefighters struggling through intense heat and unimaginable conditions to try to extinguish a fire that had the potential to cause … major damage to not just the cargo ship but impact the operation of the entire port,” Baraka said. “More than that, I saw Newark’s bravest struggle with every ounce of their strength and every measure of their training to rescue and save their brothers who had been trapped. There are no words to describe the courage I saw.”

Fritz Frage, Newark’s public safety director, said another five firefighters were injured as they struggled to bring the blaze under control. 

Built in 2011, the Grande Costa d’Avorio operates with 28 crewmembers, Grimaldi said.

“At this time, it is not known how the fire started but the Company will undertake a full investigation with close cooperation with all relevant authorities,” Grimaldi said in its statement.

In March 2019, the Grimaldi ro/ro vessel Grande America sank off the coast of France after cargo caught fire. The Africa-bound vessel was carrying 2,210 vehicles and 365 containers. 

Other companies’ car carriers have experienced devastating ship fires as well. 

In February 2022, MOL Ship Management Singapore confirmed that Felicity Ace had sunk off the coast of the Portuguese Azores in the Atlantic Ocean about two weeks after a fire broke out aboard the vessel. 

Felicity Ace was en route from Emden, Germany, to the Port of Davisville in Rhode Island. It was carrying an estimated 4,000 luxury vehicles, including Bentleys, Porsches and Lamborghinis. 

In June 2020, a fire broke out aboard the Norwegian car carrier Höegh Xiamen after it had completed loading operations at Jaxport in Florida. 

In May 2021, a fire erupted inside the wreckage of the Golden Ray, the Hyundai Glovis-owned ro/ro vessel that capsized in Georgia’s St. Simons Sound in September 2019. 

The National Transportation Safety Board eventually determined that accident was caused by “the chief officer’s error entering ballast quantities into the stability calculation program, which led to his incorrect determination of the vessel’s stability.”

Unfortunately, fires aboard container ships are not that unusual either. That includes the NYK Delphinus, which was crippled by an engine room fire in May 2021 as it was en route from the Port of Vancouver in Canada to the Port of Oakland in California. 

Still, more common is the loss of containers overboard. The World Shipping Council issued a report that said on average 1,382 containers were lost at sea between 2018 and 2019. That average later was blown out of the water. More than 2,676 containers were lost in five accidents in just two months, between Nov. 30, 2020, and the end of Jan. 31, 2021.

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.


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