Grim Details of NJ FFs' Final Minutes Emerge

Nov. 10, 2023
The operation aboard the ship where two Newark firefighters were killed is unveiled by an investigative journalist.

Second of three parts | Read part one: Why did 2 firefighters die in a ship fire that looked so routine?

They found him in the darkness, standing upright and wedged tightly between a sports utility vehicle and a small pickup truck that were just inches apart.

Trapped in the narrow space and entangled in the wide straps used to tie down the SUV and pickup, Augie Acabou was facing one vehicle, his back pressed hard against the other. The firefighter appeared motionless and unresponsive. While the smoke was thick, there was no fire visible in the immediate area.

“His helmet was off and his mask was partially off his face, exposing his mouth and nose. His face appeared to be black with soot,” wrote the captain leading the team that found him. “I aggressively attempted to push and pull him to free him loose.”

One of his rescuers immediately placed an emergency air pack and mask on him. Another tried calling for additional help on the radio, but heavy interference within the ship made communications from Deck 10 impossible. Despite their feverish efforts, they could not immediately extricate him.

Newark officials have provided few details about exactly what happened the night of July 5, when fire broke out at Berth 18 at Port Newark aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio, resulting in the deaths of Acabou, 45, and fellow firefighter Wayne Brooks Jr., 49.

However, recorded radio transmissions and the Newark Fire Department’s own incident reports — which the city refused to provide until attorneys for NJ Advance Media threatened to go to court — offer a vivid, never-reported accounting of the department’s hour-by-hour response to the fire that swept through the ship’s cargo of aging vehicles bound for West Africa.

Those narratives of 19 senior officers and the city’s fire chief detail in often graphic language how an otherwise unremarkable fire morphed into a scene of chaos and hopelessness, as firefighters clearly unprepared to fight a blaze aboard a ship were confronted with a situation that quickly spiraled out of their control.

The reports were obtained by the news organization as part of a months-long investigation into the Port Newark fire that revealed the fire department had little knowledge of shipboard firefighting, had not conducted shipboard training in nearly a decade, and had no standard operating procedures to guide them in ship fire incidents. Not even the city’s fireboat was working that night.

In page after page, the reports tell a story of mistakes and bravery and the determined struggle into the early hours of the following day as firefighters risked their own lives to save two of their brothers trapped below deck.

They also recount a battle fought in a pitch-black compartment under heavy smoke conditions, where cars and other obstacles made it nearly impossible to navigate. And they describe just how little the Newark Fire Department knew about dealing with fires aboard ships when their trucks began pulling up to the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

The 692-foot Italian-flagged vessel had been readying to leave port, bound at first for Providence, Rhode Island, before heading east across the Atlantic with its cargo of old cars and shipping containers, when fire broke out.

Deputy Chief Alfonse Carlucci, the Port Newark incident commander, wrote in his report that the 12-level ship was loaded with more than 1,000 cars “packed as close and tight as possible.” He said firefighters had limited room to maneuver as they descended deeper into the ship to determine the source of growing smoke from below decks.

“There was heavy heat and zero visibility on the 10th deck, which made advancement difficult,” he wrote.

The city’s Department of Public Safety, citing the continuing investigation, declined to make Carlucci or any other command officers available for interviews.

Other incident reports detail the efforts to find the two firefighters missing within the ship with radio traffic at times unintelligible or cut off by static and interference offering a staccato outburst of rapid-fire calls between dispatchers and firefighters as the fire escalated:

“You got a firefighter that’s on the floor. He needs air.”

“Follow the hose line out!”

“Sound your air horns. All units, sound your air horns!”

One battalion chief recalled initially being able to breathe without a mask by the open doorway to the Deck 10 compartment while still able to see a short distance through the light smoke. But inside, it soon became a blind man’s game where a thermal imaging camera and a rope served as the only guideposts amid a dark sea of cars.

“At some point, the 10th floor stairwell was blasted with heavy black smoke. Everything was nasty,” he wrote.

Another battalion chief complained that when spare oxygen tanks were delivered, they failed to include masks for their use.

“At one point in time I put a mayday over the radio due to having three members in distress and their conditions worsening,” he said. “I don’t believe it was ever acknowledged.”

And then there were the loud booms echoing from somewhere within the compartment — the sounds of automobile tires blowing in the heat of the fire.

Firefighting tactics, observed Carlucci in his report, were difficult.

‘The fire is knocked down…’

It all began on the evening of July 5, at 9:22 p.m., with alert tones dropping and a dispatch call over the radio:

“Attention all units in the field. Stand by for a full assignment to Corbin Street and Marsh Street. Reports of a ship fire at this location. Port Authority will meet Newark Fire Department at Corbin Street and Marsh Street to take us to the location of where the ship fire is. They state that there’s a bunch of vehicles on the ship and it’s on fire…”

When firefighters arrived around 9:30 p.m, they reported just light smoke emanating from the top deck. One captain, describing the scene, saw “no sense of urgency among the ship’s crew indicating a serious fire.” Indeed, 25 minutes after the first 911 call, the fire department appeared ready to call it a night, according to dispatch records that were also provided under public records requests.

A deputy chief gave an update on the radio as he stood with the master of the freighter, Capt. Alessandro Moretti, atop the vessel:

“I’m with the ship captain, I’m on Deck 12. They’ve got their own portable hand lines in place…”

There was not much more to be done, he advised.

“I don’t need any additional personnel now. You can let everybody at the command post know for now. The fire on the top deck is knocked down. I’ve got nothing…”

Among the first firefighters on the scene were Acabou, a member of Engine 16 and a Newark firefighter for nearly 10 years, along with Brooks, a member of Ladder 4 who had 16 years on the job.

Brooks was known to everyone as “Bear.” One friend said it was because he was “wild strong.” Others attributed the nickname to his love of the Chicago Bears.

Raised in Irvington, he later moved with his family to Newark where he attended St. Benedict’s Prep. The fire department had been a second career for him. After leaving school, Brooks went to work for Continental Airlines, which later merged with United Airlines. His job was to tow the big jets around the airport.

Married with a wife and two daughters, Brooks decided to take the Newark Firefighter and Police examinations before aging out of eligibility. Passing both, he opted for the fire department, graduated the academy, and joined the department in 2006.

His fellow firefighters would note of his passion for cooking, recalling his signature crab cakes and specialty pizzas.

Acabou grew up in Newark in the city’s historically Portuguese Ironbound section. He played football at East Side High School. Although described as a “scrawny kid” compared to the other players, “he had heart,” remembered his former coach. A yearbook photo the year before he graduated shows him in the second row with the junior varsity team, almost dwarfed by others on the squad.

Like Brooks, he, too, had waited before becoming a firefighter. After high school, Acabou went to work at John F. Kennedy University Medical Center Hospital in Edison, first in the linen department and later as a security officer. Joining the Newark Fire Department in 2013, he was never far from home, assigned to the old red brick firehouse on Ferry Street in the heart of the Ironbound.

“He’s the nicest guy ever,” Eddie Paulo, a fire union vice president and childhood friend, would later recall. “That’s a cliché to everybody, but when it came to Augie, he truly was the nicest guy in the world.”

On the night of the fire, Acabou reported to the command post set up on the ship’s vehicle loading ramp at the aft, or back end of the vessel, according to the incident reports released by Newark.

As he staged with others to await further orders, he greeted a fire captain he knew with a hug. There was no tension in the air and the two had a 10-minute conversation before the captain, in his report, wrote that he had been ordered to return to quarters. Th captain was no longer needed. The deputy chief had stated the fire was under control.

Acabou remained at the scene.

A mutual aid call to North Hudson Regional was cancelled. So were the EMS crews, according to the dispatch summary.

“At this point, there were no visible cars on the top of the deck on fire,” another command officer wrote in his report.

But unseen, spreading flames stalked the ship below.

While the fire had been beaten back on top of the ship, smoke was still coming up the stern ramp used to load cars onto the rear of the vessel. Members of the ship’s crew had all been accounted for and were in no danger, according to the reports. However, they were unable to give firefighters a better idea of what they might be facing down below. They could not speak English very well, if at all.

“When I got to the top deck, I saw some smoke/steam, no fire, and the ship’s crew wetting a bunch of cars in a large area towards the back and far side from where I came up,” wrote one battalion chief. “Cars were parked tightly together, about 6 inches apart and strapped down to the deck.”

Some members of the ship’s crew were on top of the cars.

“We asked if there were cars on fire on the 11th floor. Due to a compromise in communication because of a language barrier, we could not get a clear picture of what they had on fire below deck. We knew that something had to still be burning,” continued the battalion chief. “We asked where the fire had started. What deck. Everything was very vague.”

Standing on the top of the ship where the burning cars by now were all but extinguished, he spotted a hose line not being used. He told another battalion chief he planned to take the line and several firefighters to investigate what was going on below deck. Unfamiliar with the ship’s layout, he had Moretti, the captain of the Grande Costa d’Avorio, provide a crew member to lead the way.

The radio transmissions to dispatch, apparently from the commander on the top deck, confirmed that account:

“The fire actually started on Level 10, two floors below. They were able to seal those compartments off and deploy their CO (carbon dioxide fire suppression system). We’re gonna send (Engine) 27 down to check those two floors out. Give you an update in a minute for the (ship) captain to give us an escort…”

The battalion chief led several teams down a narrow stairway to check out Decks 10 and 11. Among them were Acabou and Brooks, according to the incident reports.

Upon reaching Deck 11, the teams reported the stairwell was clear. They cautiously opened compartment door about six inches. Like a dark monster suddenly unleashed, heavy black smoke came pouring out. They immediately swung the hatch door closed.

“Don’t open it again,” the chief ordered, as if anyone was thinking of taking a second look.

Another flight down within the tight confines of the ship, they reached Deck 10 and cautiously opened that doorway.

“No smoke was coming out,” wrote the battalion chief. “I looked into the room and could see pretty clearly for a good 20 feet or so.”

Attacking the fire

At first, the push inside Deck 10 of the Grande Costa d’Avorio seemed like a well-practiced operation all too familiar to firefighters making entry into a Newark warehouse or apartment building. A firefighter who spoke to NJ Advance Media described the big compartment as “dark and smoky,” although those who entered could still see their feet to the floor.

The dispatch summary noted various orders for longer hoses as they entered the area, where there were still two cars engulfed in flame.

The hose was not just there to deliver water. It was a lifeline. Keep hold of the hose and it becomes a pathway out of the smoke and darkness. Lose it and you’re adrift without any bearings, unaware if you’re walking into a void, a dead end, or the way back toward safety.

The battalion chief called in at 10:10 p.m. to report they were hosing down the cars.

“We have a line going. Trying to get a push now.”

Within minutes, the flames had been knocked down and could no longer be seen. It seemed they had gained the upper hand.

Yet it was not as it appeared.

Deck 10 was turning into a death trap.

Carlucci, the incident commander, wrote in his account that there had been “heavy heat and limited visibility” on the lower deck.

According to other incident reports, the first teams in were crews from Engine 27 and two members of Ladder 4, who came out and reported two cars were burning from debris dropping from the 11th floor through holes in the steel deck and that they had extinguished the fires in those cars.

Firefighters were switched out with members of Engine Company 16, including Acabou, along with Brooks of Ladder 4, taking their places to see if anything else was burning.

Brooks followed the initial attack line to the tip of the hose, according to one of the reports, continuing to fight the car fires. Another firefighter carried a thermal imaging camera to search out hot spots and unseen fire responsible for the worsening smoke conditions.

“The cars on fire were quickly knocked down, but advancement was hindered due to the amount of storage on Deck 10,” Carlucci wrote.

With the black smoke thickening, they could not see much of anything. The men were ordered to retreat by the battalion chief.

The minutes ticked by. The radio was silent.

Then one of the members of Engine Co. 16 called in.

“We can’t find our way out!”

It was a call for help.

One of the firefighters monitoring the radio traffic asked headquarters if they had heard the transmission.

‘Did you just hear Engine 16′s last transmission?” he asked. “Be advised it sounded like he said he cannot find his way back out.”

Almost immediately, alert tones sounded on the radio in response to the mayday. An order was given to get everyone out of the ship.

“All units, evacuate yourselves! Emergency evacuation! Evacuate yourselves…”

They began a rehearsed roll call, the fire dispatcher asking repeatedly if each unit had PAR — an acronym that stands for Personnel Accountability Report. It is basically a way of asking “is everyone OK?”

The dispatcher pressed for names.

“Engine 16, identify yourself. 16. What’s your name? Give us your name!”

“What’s the other firefighter’s name? Make it clear, captain. Make it clear!”

Originally four men were missing. Two were subsequently able to find their way out. But on-scene commanders soon realized that Brooks and Acabou were missing.

The incident reports give voice to the intensity and desperation involved in the search to find the two men and bring them back out as the department’s efforts turned into a race against time. In the frantic hours that followed, many would be overcome by heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and burns. At least six would be hospitalized.

“The fire on Deck 10 was knocked down but again members were working and searching under high heat and zero visibility conditions,” wrote Carlucci in his report.

It was impossible to move forward without a thermal imaging camera and a hand light guiding their way through the smoke and darkness, according to the captain leading the first team who went in. Over their heads, the fire one level up on Deck 11 continued to get worse, heating up the steel ceiling where they were searching on Deck 10, wrote the deputy chief.

Meanwhile, atop the ship, Deck 12 was cooking from the fire one level below. Flooded from the firefighting efforts, the top deck was now like a pot of superheated water on a stove burner. Those who had remained on the top deck began climbing onto the beds of pickup trucks and the roofs of cars tied down on the weather deck to avoid getting burned through their boots.

The heat eventually became so intense that it caused additional cars on Deck 12 to ignite, according to Carlucci.

‘Anybody hear me?’

On the radio, the alert tones dropped again as the dispatcher tried repeatedly to raise the two missing men.

“Headquarters, to firefighter Brooks and firefighter Acabou, if you can hear this, activate your panic alarm button…”

On Deck 10, the first rescue team — their efforts limited by the amount of air in their tanks — listened intently for the sound of that panic button, the portable alarm every firefighter carries. Known as a PASS device, or Personal Alert Safety System, it blasts a piercing series of 95 decibel sounds not unlike a home fire alarm, alerting others in the area that a firefighter has been motionless for a period of time, or sounding a distress call if manually activated.

One of the searchers had a 6-foot hook that he repeatedly banged hard against the decking in an effort to signal the two missing firefighters and get them to react. Another was using the thermal imaging camera to follow the hose line leading into the compartment.

When they reached the nozzle of the hose, they clipped the search rope to the door of a burnt-out vehicle they came across — as it would turn out, the Jeep Wrangler where court filings indicate the fire began, say reports. That would give them a path back to safety. They then continued straight ahead, stretching out the line for another 40 feet, and inched forward.

That’s when they finally heard the PASS alarm.

It was Acabou.

Sandwiched between two vehicles, the missing firefighter was without his mask and helmet. He was unresponsive and his face was warm to the touch. One of the members of the search team pulled out a RIT pack, an emergency air supply system, and placed the mask on Acabou’s soot-stained face, while others repeatedly tried without success to free him. Another finally moved back along the line to the bulkhead door to try reaching someone on the radio. His first calls were garbled, broken up and all but indecipherable on the recorded transmissions:

“Follow the search line. Follow the search line…”

After three attempts, he was able to reach fire dispatch.

“We’ve located the firefighter… Anybody hear me?”

His heavy breathing was muffled by his mask, although he could be clearly heard now as he spoke slowly and with emphasis.

“I need a search team to follow the water hand line through [unintelligible]. We found the firefighter. We need help…”

The orders immediately went out. A fresh team was sent in as the men still trying to free Acabou were told to make the location known:

“Make some noise. So they know where you’re at!”

They tried clearing the smoke by having the captain activate the ship’s ventilation fans, but it was still impossible to see anything. The second crew followed the line that had been laid out and came upon Acabou and those already working to get him out. They also tried to free him, first cutting the tie down straps. Then they attempted to “bounce” the vehicle to move it and get him out. That effort was futile was well.

They needed more force. They needed the so-called “jaws of life” — a battery-operated spreader tool typically used to pop open the doors of wrecked automobiles to extricate crash victims. It could provide the muscle required to cut the straps and physically to push apart the vehicles.

Still without radio communications from inside the cargo hold to the outside, any requests for additional equipment meant someone had to go back, retracing their steps along the 110 feet of rescue line and hose to return to the stairwell just to get information out and call for the equipment needed to move the cars continuing to hold Acabou in a vise-like grip.

Another team came in with the spreader, its motor buzzing as it shoved the vehicles apart. In moments, Acabou was finally free. The firefighters then gathered together and carried him up two flights of stairs to Deck 12.

It was nearly 1 a.m.

Placing him on the back of a pickup truck to avoid the hot water on the top deck, they started performing CPR chest compressions to resuscitate him. As they worked, he was strapped into a Stokes basket stretcher. Then he was carried to the side of the ship and the stretcher was lowered to the dock by the ship’s crane. A waiting NJ State Police helicopter transported him to the trauma center at University Hospital in Newark

It was there that he was pronounced dead.

Still searching on Deck 10 at 1:38 a.m. for Brooks, a Jersey City rescue unit made it to the end of the compartment when they began hearing loud booms echoing in the dark space. Automobile tires were exploding in the heat.

They were forced to pull back.

More than an hour later, Brooks be would found by a specialized New York City fire department search-and-rescue team that finally was able to locate him, also by his panic alarm, similarly lodged between multiple vehicles about 150 feet in, according to the reports.

As his body was brought up to the top deck, someone found an American flag from Ladder 4′s apparatus, according to a battalion chief. The EMTs carefully wrapped him in the flag before strapping him into the basket.

And then Bear was also lowered from the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

On the dock, firefighters stood silently at attention and saluted as Battalion 5 and Ladder 4 members wheeled the fallen firefighter’s body to an ambulance.

Funerals and an accounting

In the months since the fire at Berth 18 in Port Newark, investigators have yet to say anything publicly about its causes or what happened the night of July 5 aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

The ship’s crew, after being repeatedly questioned by investigators and lawyers, were finally allowed to return home in September. The ship itself is gone as well, towed from New Jersey to a repair yard in Turkey, said Port Authority officials.

According to court filings, the bridge of the freighter was largely destroyed. Fire damage was pervasive throughout Decks 10, 11, and 12. Additionally, nearly all vehicles stored on those decks were severely damaged or completely destroyed by the fire.

Many questions, though, continue to be raised over the Newark Fire Department’s response and who might be to blame for what went wrong. The matter has already begun to play out in court and amid threats of litigation.

Lawyers for American Maritime Services of New York, the stevedoring company responsible for loading the cars aboard the vessel, have raised questions about the training of city firefighters.

“This was a small fire that turned into a really big fire,” said attorney John Karpousis, representing American Maritime Services of New York, told a federal judge in a hearing in August. “I want to know what their firefighting training was.”

In New Jersey, though, there is no requirement for such training. Shipboard firefighting is not a part of the regular training programs of most departments in the state. The New Jersey Division of Fire Safety said it does not even have an accredited certification program for marine and shipboard firefighting.

“A major challenge is New Jersey does not have the qualified and experienced instructors needed to run a nationally or internationally accredited shipboard firefighting for land-based firefighters course,” explained Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, where the Division of Fire Safety resides.

An 8-hour, practical skills training class, following 32 hours of classroom instruction for 30 to 60 firefighters, would require approximately 17 certified instructors, she said.

Firefighting experts say some basic marine firefighting training should be required for any department that responds to port fires.

“It needs to be consistent, and it needs to be ongoing. A regular fire academy approach,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science and public management at John Jay College in New York. “You wouldn’t need do this in Iowa. But you have this gigantic port, and you don’t have the corresponding training needed for it.”

And it’s not just the training, he added. “It’s the coordination of response. It needs to be regional.”

Similar questions regarding fire department training were raised in the wake of the 2020 ship fire in Jacksonville, Fla., aboard the Höegh Xiamen — which like the Grande Costa d’Avorio had been loaded with old cars and pickup trucks being shipped to West Africa. The vessel had been chartered by Grimaldi Deep Sea, the Naples-based owner of the ship that caught fire at Port Newark.

In that case, the National Transportation Safety Board later cited a litany of failures that led to a total loss of the ship and its cargo of old cars and trucks, including the alleged failures of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.

Attorneys for the owners and operators of the Höegh Xiamen, the stevedoring company responsible for loading her, and Grimaldi in a massive lawsuit set to go to trial in federal court in Florida claimed in recent court filings that Jacksonville firefighters had been in way over their heads.

“JFRD ( Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department) responded to the fire, but it shortly became clear the department had provided entirely inadequate training in maritime firefighting for its firefighters,” they wrote in response to a lawsuit by members of the department who were hurt in the fire.

Noting that after it had been confirmed there were no crew left aboard the vessel, a Jacksonville fire chief recommended moving to a “defensive” posture outside the vessel because he was aware that there was significant risk to the firefighters within the ship and no reason for them to remain inside it.

“Not only did JFRD ignore that recommendation and re-commence its attack, it then created a backdraft event by inexplicably channeling oxygen into superheated decks near where JFRD firefighters were working,” the lawyers said.

That led to a violent explosion on board that left five Jacksonville firefighters badly injured.

Jacksonville fire officials, citing the litigation, declined comment.

Here in New Jersey, Anthony Tarantino, the recently retired president of the Newark Fire Officers Union, said the city has yet to take any action to ensure its fire department is better prepared the next time.

“Two guys died. Brooks always had a smile. Augie always was talking about baseball,” he said quietly. “These guys didn’t know what they were getting into.”

Their deaths in the line of duty were the first since 2001, when 15-year veteran Lawrence Webb, 37, a cousin of basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal, died after collapsing in a third-floor apartment of a burning Newark home following a heart attack triggered by smoke inhalation, according to fire officials.

A week after the Port Newark fire, hundreds gathered amid the mournful sounds of bagpipes and drums for a funeral service at Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark honoring Augusto Acabou. Posthumously promoted to the rank of captain, he had been engaged to be married, and left behind his fiancée, his surviving parents, two brothers and a nephew.

The next day, the crowd of uniformed firefighters, officers and mourners once again gathered at Sacred Heart to celebrate the life of Wayne Brooks Jr. Also posthumously promoted to the rank of captain, he left behind his mother, his wife, and two daughters.

Months later, their families remain grief-stricken and announced plans to file lawsuits against the city, the ship owner, the marine terminal and the stevedoring company responsible for loading the Grande Costa d’Avorio, charging negligence.

Speaking in front of the red brick firehouse of Engine Co. 16 in Newark’s Ironbound section where his older brother had been assigned, Miguel Acabou spoke in early October of their loss.

“In the heart of every community, there exists a beacon of courage and selflessness,” he said, calling his brother “a guardian, ready to protect and save, even at the risk of his own life.”

Michele Brooks said Wayne “was not only my husband, he was a cherished father, son, brother, cousin, and a beloved member of our community” who was taken from them in a manner that was entirely preventable. “We are committed to have those responsible for the loss of two precious lives held accountable,” she said as she struggled to hold back her tears. “Wayne, I love you deeply and we will pursue justice in your memory.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said he understood “people’s tendency to look for someone to blame,” adding that he had no doubt that the ongoing investigation will yield important lessons.

“But please don’t lose sight of the fact that this was a shocking event for all of us and we still grieve the heart-wrenching loss of these two men,” he said.

Among the agencies now investigating the Port Newark incident are the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the New Jersey State Fire Marshal, the New Jersey State Police, the Newark Fire Arson Division, and Essex County Prosecutor.

The Coast Guard was on the scene more than a month after the fire was extinguished, overseeing salvage and recovery efforts, including the removal of the vehicles and cargo containers.

Meanwhile, with concerns still being raised about the safety of the used vehicles that were being loaded aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the ports of New York Harbor, has suspended all such exports while the investigation continues.

Coming Sunday: Long before the fatal Port Newark fire, there were red flags about the old cars that fueled it

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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