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Opinion: What Two Fires In 2020 Should Have Warned Us About in Port of Newark

The Coast Guard, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Newark Fire Department, and multiple state and area agencies respond to a fire in Port Newark on the vehicle carrier ship, Grande Costa D’Avorio. Fire fighting crews are working to extinguish the fire both from the pier and from FDNY fireboats. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Dan Henry)

Opinion: What Two Fires In 2020 Should Have Warned Us About in Port of Newark

Sal Mercogliano
Total Views: 5702
July 10, 2023

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. 

The loss of Newark firefighters Augusto Acabou (45) and Wayne Brooks Jr., (49) on board the Grimaldi Lines container/roll-on roll-off ship MV Grande Costa d’Avorio brings to the forefront the dangers of fighting fires on board vessels.

On Wednesday evening, July 5, 2023, Newark Fire Department was dispatched to a structure fire that turned into a shipboard fire. While loading vehicles destined for West Africa, stevedores and the ship’s crew noticed smoke and fire on Deck 10 of the ship.  The call went out and Newark Fire Department responded. Thus began a series of events that would lead to the death of the two firefighters, injuries to many more and the probable constructive total loss of the vessel.  

The question that needs to be asked is why were these two firefighters lost? Even before that call went out that night, fires on board ships should raise concerns with any departments responding to them. In 2020, two shipboard fires highlighted these issues.  

On June 4, 2020, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue in Florida responded to a vehicle fire on board the car carrier Höegh Xiamen. The ship was preparing for departure when smoke appeared out of one of the exhaust trunks for Deck 8. On that deck, were used vehicles that had just been loaded. In consultation with the ship’s master, the fixed carbon dioxide system was emptied into decks 7 and 8 to extinguish the blaze and then the crew evacuated the ship.  

The attempt proved unsuccessful, and the fire began to spread through the steel decks. In shipboard firefighting, when fire is in a contained area, the usual procedure is to secure the space of ventilation and then to cool and contain the spread to the decks above and below, and compartments fore and aft. Jacksonville Fire decided to enter one of the fire decks and this resulted in an explosion with the inrush of fresh air and fire venting out through the exhaust ports to the weather deck. Nine firefighters were injured, five of them seriously.  

The ship burned for another eight days. The vessel and the cargo of 2,420 used vehicles were declared a total loss at $40 million. The ship was towed to Turkey for recycling. At the time of the fire, the ship was chartered to Grimaldi Lines, the same company that owns and operates Grande Costa d’Avorio. The fire on Höegh Xiamen follows a similar pattern for Grimaldi.  

On March 12, 2019, Grande America – a ship like Grande Costa d’Avorio – suffered a fire in their onboard containers off the coast of France. The crew was rescued by the Royal Navy and the ship sank. Two months later, fire hit Grande Europa in the Mediterranean but this time the fire was brought under control and the ship was towed to port. Then in November 2019, a third Grimaldi ship – Eurocargo Trieste – suffered an engine room fire. In 2022, two years after Höegh Xiamen, Grimaldi’s Euroferry Olympia suffered a fire that resulted in the death of eleven personnel and the scrapping of the vessel.   

Grimaldi is not alone in car carrier accidents. In 2019, while departing from the port of Brunswick, Georgia, the car carrier Golden Ray nearly capsized in the channel. The ship grounded and had to be scrapped in place over the course of three years. In 2022, MV Felicity Ace, loaded with 4,000 vehicles, including Porsches, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis, went down in the Atlantic after catching fire. The suspected cause was electrical vehicles. But firms like Grimaldi, noted the risk earlier on and in 2019, after the fires on Grande America and Grande Europa, announced their intention to enforce stricter controls and regulations on the loading and storing of cars on board.  

The second major United States ship fire in 2020, took place in San Diego, California on board the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship. A fire in the lower vehicle deck on July 12, 2020, initially went unnoticed and when it was discovered, the ships duty section was ill-prepared to handle the situation. The response from the naval base’s Federal Fire Department found that their equipment was incompatible with the ship’s standing fire systems and lacked knowledge of the layout of the vessel. Plus, the ship, just coming out of a shipyard had 87 percent of their fire stations out of service, including their general fire alarm and fixed foam flooding stations. 

A disorganized command and control led to Federal Fire assuming the burden of initial firefighting, while municipal fire departments, such as San Diego Fire arrived with no direction and proceeded to enter the ship from another access point to fight the fire. It was the San Diego Fire Department that alerted all to the potential of an explosion that led to the timely evacuation of the ship.  

The arrival of San Diego Police fire boats proved inadequate. The failure to call out the larger harbor tugs – San Diego lacked any true fireboats – severely impacted the ability to save Bonhomme Richard. The standard operating procedures for fire at the base in San Diego proved flawed and resulted in the constructive total loss of Bonhomme Richard.  

When Newark Fire Department was called out to fight the fire on board Grande Costa d’Avorio, most of the firefighters and their leaders had little to no training in how to tackle such a shipboard fire. As the second largest fire department in New Jersey, they face a myriad of calls everyday that require their full attention and fires in the Port of Newark and Port Elizabeth are infrequent. This is why Chief Rufus Jackson noted that his fire department did not have the time or resources to adequately train for such a contingency. 

The Director of the Port of New York/New Jersey, Beth Ann Rooney, noted that unlike airports which are required to have fire assets on location by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation and Maritime Administration do not do the same for seaports. “We do not have a fire department within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; we do currently rely on the local municipalities,” she said. This places a huge burden on fire departments that do not deal with shipboard fires on a regular basis but represent major events when they do occur. 

In their yearly report, Safety and Shipping Review 2023, Allianz notes that “Fire is the most expensive cause of marine insurance claims.” Over the last ten years, out of 807 ships lost, 37 were roll-on roll-off ships; and 64 ships, of all types, were lost to fire in that same period. How then should departments like Newark and others that adjoin ports prepare for such fires?

Obviously, the lessons learned from Höegh Xiamen and Bonhomme Richard are crucial to synthesis and adopt. But there are ports that have worked with commercial companies and the federal government to ensure that they are prepared to battle a shipboard fire, such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The issue is that ports remain under the jurisdiction of local municipalities and states, yet it is the federal government that mandates standards and requirements to airports for firefighting resources.  

Ports need to work together to see how they are preparing for such contingencies and how they can assist and facilitate local fire departments. There must be liaison between the ships and fire departments provided by the ports. They, in turn, need to work with cities to ensure that when a fire is reported that the correct and sufficient assets are mobilized. The overarching issues are funding, personnel, and time.  

One resource available to many ports and communities could be the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and six state maritime academies – Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, California, and Great Lakes. These schools train merchant mariners in many aspects, and shipboard firefighting is one of them. The new National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (NMSVs), with the first destined for SUNY Maritime in New York, could be brought to ports in the area and used as a training opportunity for local fire departments. Exchange programs, educational opportunities, and outreach programs could expand knowledge to many departments that lack the resources to bring in commercial firms to train, while at the same time providing opportunities to students from these academies.  

The federal, state, and local entities should examine the procedures in place to meet the contingencies in place should their closest port experience a shipboard fire like Grande Costa d’Avorio. This may be the difference between life and death in the future.   

Salvatore. Mercogliano is an associate professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, a former merchant mariner, and creator of the Youtube channel “What’s Going on With Shipping?

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