What two fires in 2020 in the Port of Newark should have warned us about

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

The loss of Newark Firefighters Augusto Acabou, 45, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49, aboard the Grimaldi Lines container/roll-on-roll-off vessel MV Greater Ivory Coast makes clear the dangers of firefighting on board ships.

On Wednesday evening, July 5, 2023, the Newark Fire Department was dispatched to a building fire that turned into a ship fire. While loading vehicles for West Africa, stevedores and the ship’s crew noticed smoke and fire on deck 10 of the ship. The call went off and the Newark Fire Department responded. This began a series of events that would result in the deaths of the two firefighters, the injury of numerous others, and the probable total constructive loss of the ship.

The question that needs to be asked is why these two firefighters were lost. Even before that call came out that night, fires aboard ships should be of concern to all relevant authorities. In 2020, two ship fires highlighted these issues.

On June 4, 2020, Florida’s Jacksonville Fire and Rescue responded to a vehicle fire aboard the auto transporter Hoegh Xiamen. The ship was preparing to depart when smoke issued from one of the Deck 8 exhaust pipes. On this deck were used vehicles that had just been loaded. In consultation with the ship’s captain, the permanently installed carbon dioxide system was evacuated to decks 7 and 8 to extinguish the fire and the crew then evacuated the ship.

The attempt failed and the fire began to spread across the steel decks. When fighting fires on board, the usual procedure when the fire is in a confined area is to secure the ventilation space and then cool it and contain the spread to the decks above and below and the fore and aft compartments. Jacksonville Fire decided to enter one of the fire decks, resulting in an explosion that rushed in fresh air and the fire exited through the exhaust vents to the weather deck. Nine firefighters were injured, five seriously.

The ship burned for another eight days. A total of $40 million in damage was reported for the ship and its cargo of 2,420 used vehicles. 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 the ship Greater Ivory Coast. The fire is burning Hoegh Xiamen follows a similar pattern for Grimaldi.

On March 12, 2019, Grand America – a ship like Greater Ivory Coast – suffered a fire in their shipboard containers off the coast of France. The crew was rescued by the Royal Navy and the ship sank. A fire broke out two months later big Europe in the Mediterranean, but this time the fire was brought under control and the ship towed into port. Then, in November 2019, a third Grimaldi ship – Eurocargo Trieste – suffered an engine room fire. In 2022, two years later Hoegh XiamenGrimaldis Euro ferry Olympia suffered a fire in which eleven people died and the ship was scrapped.

Grimaldi is not alone in accidents involving car transporters. In 2019, the car transporter left the port of Brunswick, Georgia Golden Ray nearly capsized in the canal. The ship ran aground and had to be scrapped on the spot over the course of three years. In the year 2022, MV Felicity Ace, laden with 4,000 vehicles including Porsches, Bentleys and Lamborghinis, sank in the Atlantic after catching fire. The suspected cause was electric vehicles. But companies like Grimaldi recognized the risk earlier and in 2019, after the fires Grand America And Great Europea, announced their intention to enforce stricter controls and regulations on car loading and storage on board.

The second major US shipfire of 2020 occurred in San Diego, California on board the USS Bonhomme Richardan amphibious assault ship. A fire in the lower vehicle deck on July 12, 2020 initially went unnoticed and when it was discovered the ship service department was ill prepared for the situation. The response from the naval base’s federal fire service stated that their equipment was not compatible with the ship’s existing fire protection systems and that there was a lack of knowledge of the ship’s layout. Also, on the ship that had just left the shipyard, 87 percent of the fire stations were out of service, including general fire alarm and fixed foam flood stations.

Disorganized command and control resulted in Federal Fire taking on the burden of initial firefighting, while municipal fire departments such as the San Diego Fire arrived without direction and boarded the ship from a different access point to fight the blaze. It was the San Diego Fire Department who alerted everyone to the danger of an explosion that led to the ship’s timely evacuation.

The arrival of the San Diego Police Department’s fire boats proved insufficient. Failure to call the larger harbor tugs — San Diego had no true fireboats — severely hampered the rescue capability Bonhomme Richard. Standard procedures for a fire at the San Diego base proved flawed and resulted in the constructive total loss of Bonhomme Richard.

When the Newark Fire Department was called to tackle the fire on board Greater Ivory Coast, most firefighters and their leaders had little or no training in dealing with such a ship fire. As the second-largest fire department in New Jersey, it faces a variety of emergencies every day that require its full attention, and fires in the Port of Newark and Port Elizabeth are rare. Because of this, Chief Rufus Jackson found his fire department did not have the time or resources to adequately train for such an emergency.


Port of New York, New Jersey Director Beth Ann Rooney noted that unlike airports, which are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration to have fire suppression equipment on-site, the Department of Transportation and Maritime Administration does not do the same for seaports . “We don’t have fire departments within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; We are currently dependent on the local municipalities,” she said. This places an enormous burden on fire departments, which while not dealing with shipboard fires on a regular basis, do have major events when they do occur.

In their annual report Security and shipping review 2023Allianz notes that “Fire is the most expensive cause of damage for marine insurance.” Of the 807 ships lost in the past decade, 37 were roll-on roll-off ships; and 64 ships of all types were lost to fire during the same period. How, then, should agencies like Newark and others bordering ports prepare for such fires?

Lessons have obviously been learned from this Hoegh Xiamen And Bonhomme Richard are critical to synthesis and acquisition. However, there are ports that have worked with commercial companies and the federal government to ensure they are prepared to respond to a shipfire, such as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The problem is that ports remain the responsibility of local municipalities and states, but it is the federal government that imposes standards and requirements on airports for firefighting resources.

Ports need to work together to figure out how to prepare for emergencies like this and how to support and assist local fire departments. There must be a connection between the ships and the port fire brigades. They, in turn, need to work with cities to ensure that the right and sufficient resources are mobilized when a fire is reported. The overarching themes are finance, human resources and time.

A resource available to many ports and communities could be the US Merchant Marine Academy and six state maritime academies – Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, California and Great Lakes. These schools educate merchant ships in many areas, and onboard firefighting is one of them. The new National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (NMSVs), the first of which is destined for SUNY Maritime in New York, could be taken to ports in the area and used as a training facility for local fire departments. Exchange programs, educational opportunities, and outreach programs could extend knowledge to many departments that lack the resources to attract commercial companies to train while providing opportunities for students at these academies.

Federal, state and local authorities should review the procedures in place to address existing emergencies should a ship fire break out in their nearest port Greater Ivory Coast. This could mean 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 merchantman and creator of the YouTube channel “What’s up with shipping?

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