The chief officer of the cargo vessel that burned July 5 at Port Newark, N.J., testified Thursday about Newark city firefighters arriving to fight the blaze, only to suddenly turn it into a rescue mission when two of their own went missing.
His voice cracking at times, Benito LaFauci told the Coast Guard investigation board in Union, N.J., of meeting Newark Fire Department officers as they came aboard shortly after 9:30 p.m. LaFauci briefed them on the situation and how the crew had activated a carbon dioxide extinguishing system a few minutes before, trying to control the fire among 1,200 cars on the 692’x118’ ro/ro container vessel Grande Costa d’Avorio.
While relaying information to ship captain Alessandro Moretti on the bridge, LaFauci told him the firefighters wanted to reach Deck 12 above the fire among vehicles on upper cargo decks.
After Moretti agreed, LaFauci said he told the bosun to check if an aft staircase was safe after the carbon dioxide discharge. With the stairs clear of smoke, the firefighters ascended to the upper deck.
But within minutes the firefighters had bad news. “One firefighter missing,” LaFauci remembered telling the captain by radio. “They told me that they stopped the firefighting and started a rescue operation.”
Shortly after, LaFauci told Moretti: “Captain, another one is missing.”
The firefighters recovered Fire Department captains Augusto ‘Augie’ Acabou, 45, and Wayne ‘Bear’ Brooks Jr., 49. LaFauci said the bosun prepared one of the ship’s cranes to lower the bodies to the pier. The captains were pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital, and other firefighters suffered smoke inhalation and burns.
Directly addressing relatives of the two fallen firefighters attending the hearing, LaFauci tearfully said “on behalf of myself and our crew…we are broken that two brave firefighters lost their lives on board.”
“We offer our deepest condolences to the families. We tried our best to extinguish the fire.”
The families of the firefighters and ship operators Grimaldi Deep Sea have contended the fire started in a 2007 Jeep Wrangler that stevedores used as a push vehicle, moving cars up steep ramps to the vehicle cargo decks.
The fire would take five days to be fully extinguished, as emergency responders worked to pump out firefighting water and control the ship’s list at dockside.