Commentary: Fatal Port Newark fire exposes regional dysfunction

A look at why the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s reliance on local fire companies to battle such blazes may not be enough.

The fatal Port Newark fire exposed how the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s reliance on local fire companies in such blazes may not be enough, writes Bob Hennelly, a reporter with The Chief.

The fatal Port Newark fire exposed how the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s reliance on local fire companies in such blazes may not be enough, writes Bob Hennelly, a reporter with The Chief. Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This week funeral services are being held for beloved Newark firefighters Augusto Acabou, 45, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49 who perished fighting a fire that started at around 9:30 p.m. July 5 on the massive Grande Costa D’Avorio, a vehicle carrier and cargo ship docked in Port Newark.

The Italian vessel is 12 stories high and was loaded with 1,200 cars as well as close to 160 containers bound for West Africa. Several firemen were also injured. The fire continued to burn for days and was only declared out by the U.S. Coast Guard July 11th. The salvage operation is expected to take one to two months, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, the lead agency for the response.

During an on scene press briefing the first night of the fire,  Newark Mayor Ras Baraka 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.”

According to the Coast Guard timeline, the Newark firefighters were dispatched at around 9:30 pm on July 5. Firefighters from Hudson, Union, Essex, and Bergen counties also responded. Writing for InsiderNJ, I confirmed that the FDNY, which has the region’s most robust marine based firefighting capability, did not get a request for mutual aid until 12:40 a.m. July 6, with Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh approving the mutual aid response around 1 a.m., 3 1/2 hours after the initial response.

Newark’s ill-fated response got off to a shaky start when the Newark Fire Department’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 hoses, Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka would later explain.”

The 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. The bistate agency does not have its own firefighting capability and relies entirely on the emergency services in its host communities which, in the case of Newark, has historically been under fiscal stress.

At a press conference convened by Newark’s fire unions there were complaints of understaffing, regular apparatus failures and inadequate training. reported that on the night of the Port Newark fire, the city's fireboat wouldn't start.

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. There’s no such requirement for their vast port facilities.

Because of the loss of life, the fire and the response are under investigation. Veteran firefighters and fire science experts agree that because of the unique perils of marine firefighting, firefighters should only board a vessel if they believe there are human lives at risk. Reporting is contradictory as to whether or not the responding Newark firefighters were aware of the status of the ship’s crew.

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, 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.”

FDNY Lt. James McCarthy, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said inadequate training is an issue “all too often” throughout the United States, which overwhelmingly relies on volunteers.

“We have a very robust training program at the FDNY,” McCarthy said. “We have a ship simulator at our academy as well as an airline simulator and a subway

simulator. We take training very seriously. One of our slogans is let no man’s ghost come back to say the training let him down. To put someone in the situations like this when they are not trained is just unconscionable.”

For Glenn Corbett, assistant professor of Fire Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Port Newark fire demands a cross border, regional response.

“The Port Authority owns all these properties, but they expect the local fire departments to deal with it,” Corbett said. “This really speaks to the need for a permanent training for shipboard firefighting but also beyond that a fusion center for information stuff. When those chiefs showed up at Newark the other night, they should have had the ability to say ‘ok, there’s cars in there but how is this thing laid out?’ They may have made a different decision.”

UFOA’s McCarthy says when it comes to something of the scale of a burning cargo ship, state and municipal boundaries can really get in the way of the most effective response.

“We appreciate the autonomy of each municipality that you want to use your own resources and that’s why you have them,” McCarthy said. “But when you have something of this magnitude and adjacent to your municipality you have the best equipment in the world – the best trained firefighters – you would think they would call us as soon as possible … We need a regional approach. When an emergency like this happens, it has to be all hands-on deck.”

At the press conference Newark fire union officials said they hoped that the tragic loss of firefighters Acabou and Brooks would make for a safer Newark. Let’s hope their legacy extends to the entire Port of New York and New Jersey.