A Coast Guard hearing into a ship fire that killed two Newark, N.J., firefighters focused on dock workers’ testimony Wednesday about a vehicle blaze that broke out in the first minutes of the July 5, 2023, inferno. 

The 692’x118’ ro/ro container vessel Grande Costa d’Avorio was tied up at Port Newark, N.J., and being loaded that night with new and used cars. Around 9:30 p.m. a fire on a car deck grew out of control, and veteran Newark Fire Department captains Augusto ‘Augie’ Acabou, 45, and Wayne ‘Bear’ Brooks Jr., 49, died trapped amid burning vehicles.

Families of the firefighters have contended the fire started in a Jeep Wrangler that stevedores with American Maritime Services used as a push vehicle. Working in pairs,  workers put cargo vessels into neutral gear and used the Jeep to push them up steep ramps to the car deck.

Gaven Puchinsky, who was working on the AMS lashing crew, testified about driving the Jeep, as the hearing got underway Jan. 10 in Union, N.J . 

“When I got to the top of Deck 10 I heard a clunking sound,” Puchinsky said, “like you dropped a wrench or something.”

Puchinsky said he pushed the cargo vehicle into a parking space, when flames starting coming in the passenger door window of the Jeep. Co-workers “started screaming at me to get out because the car was on fire,” said Puchinsky.

The fire was under the hood of the Jeep with “fireballs coming out,” said Puchinsky, and he ran to grab the nearest fire extinguisher hanging in the car deck, emptying that one and then another.

“Come on, we have to get out of here,” other workers shouted, said Puchinsky, and they ran down the ramp as Deck 10 filled with heavy black smoke.

Gaven Puchinsky, left, testifies Jan. 10 about a push vehicle fire on the ro/ro ship Grande Costa d’Avorio at Port Newark, N.J., on July 5, 2023. Listening at right is lawyer Michael Baldassare. Coast Guard video image.

Under questioning by panel members with the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, Puchinsky said there were no alarms or engine warning lights in the Jeep before the fire broke out. 

Pressing for more details about maintenance of the Jeep, the panel heard testimony from Austin Costanzo, another member of the AMS lashing crew, who said the Jeep had overheated several times when he used it months before the fire. AMS mechanics had been notified of the overheating, he said. 

Both Puchinsky and Costanzo said they had not seen the Jeep emit smoke before the fire.

The Italian-flagged Grande Costa d’Avorio was operated by Grimaldi Lines and homeported in Palermo. Lawyers for the firefighters’ families said In October they plan to sue Grimaldi and Port Newark stevedoring companies.

A preliminary investigation found that the Newark Fire Department had insufficient training to handle fires on large cargo vessels, and prompted debate over whether the port needs its own dedicated, on-site fire service.

Responders with Donjon Smit prepare equipment to capture firefighting water from dewatering pumps in the vessel Grande Costa D'Avorio at Port Newark, N.J., July 10. Coast Guard photo/PO3 Mikaela McGee.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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