Caught in a death trap. Why did 2 firefighters perish in a ship fire that looked routine?
“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.
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: