Italy-based shipping line Grimaldi has said in a court filing that “a fire started from the underside of the Jeep Wrangler while it was being driven by an American Marine Services (AMS) employee and pushing a non-running Toyota Venza from the terminal to Deck 10 on the vessel” and that this was the cause of the July 5th fire on Grande Costa D’Avorio (IMO 9465382) at Port Newark, New Jersey.
Two initial responding firefighters, who were part of a non-specialist team, died as a result of the incident.
The September 13th filing in the US District Court of New Jersey detailed the series of events which it said started the fire and actions early in the response that contributed to its spread.
Grimaldi said the vehicle that was the source of the fire was operated by the stevedoring company, which had the maintenance responsibility for the vehicle. Grimaldi further stated that the AMS drivers and lashers immediately left the vessel when the fire began.
The Grande Costa D’Avorio was a 47,232 gt conro that had arrived in Port Newark from Baltimore, Maryland, on July 3rd. On board were about 1,200 new and used cars, as well as containers. The loading of cars was being completed when the fire began at 21:00 local time on July 5th. A 2007 Jeep Wrangler was being used by the stevedoring company to load the vehicles.
The captain and crew of the vessel attempted to put the fire out using fire extinguishers and water hoses, but the fire grew in intensity, Grimaldi stated. The heavy smoke forced the crew to leave Deck 10. The captain and crew activated the CO2 system in an attempt to suppress the fire. The captain also ordered the fire teams to spray water on Decks 11 and 12 to boundary cool the area above the fire.
The Newark Fire Department reported being notified at about 21:30 that a fire was in progress on the vessel. Grimaldi says in the filing that its crew then cooperated with and assisted the firefighters as requested, and followed their instructions. At some point, the fire department determined that first one of its members and then a second was missing and turned into a search and rescue mission.
“At the request of the firefighters, the captain turned on the vessel’s ventilation system and opened the dampers to clear the smoke from Deck 10 to allow them to search for the missing firefighters,” the filing details. When the two missing firefighters were recovered, Grimaldi says the firefighters left the vessel. The Grimaldi crew continued to fight the fire on their own.
At this time it appears that neither the firefighters from New Jersey nor the captain / crew of the Grande Costa D’Avorio were aware of the seriousness of the fire. It was only at 06:00 the following morning that the crew observed the fire spreading on the open Deck 12. At this point, some nine hours after the fire started, the captain ordered the crew to disembark.
The New York Fire Department and a private salvage company now stepped in to fight the flames, with the main task being to restrict the region of the fire to the aft 300ft of the 692ft vessel. However, it took six days for the fire to be declared extinguished.
Grimaldi’s relatively prompt and detailed filing has given it a start over the US Coast Guard, which said that its investigation was still ongoing.
The pre-emptive legal move by Grimaldi contended that the fire “was not caused or contributed to by any fault, neglect, or want of care or design on the part of the vessel or those in charge of her, or by Grimaldi.”
Notwithstanding the general purpose of the filing, not unusual in cases similar to this, where the company uses a federal statute and an admiralty and maritime claim in an effort to ask the court for a limitation of liability, while it also seeks exoneration from the liability, Grimaldi’s filing has raised a raft of questions about the manner in which the port employees and authorities originally responded to the fire. The families of the two firefighters have already filed claims and the terminal operator Ports America has served notice of intent to make a claim, but the filing admits that the total amount of the claims which may be made in the future is not presently known.
“Grimaldi reasonably anticipates and believes that civil action and claims will be asserted against it in an amount exceeding the total amount for which Grimaldi and the vessel may be legally responsible,” the filing contends.
Grimaldi provided an initial $20m security on September 1st after the filing by the families of the firefighters, which the company now seeks to reduce to just over $19.8m. Grimaldi has cited admiralty law in requesting that the liability be limited to $15.9m.
Under the Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act, various costs are subtracted from the value of the vessel.
The $15.9m is based on a valuation of $55m for the vessel immediately before the fire. Grimaldi is estimating repair costs at $26m and that the cost of towing the vessel back to the Mediterranean will add $3m to this. Grimaldi expects its share of the salvage cost to be around $11m. Finally, $900,000 in owned freight from the shippers of the cargo is added into the calculation, thus reaching the $15.9m figure.
Given the theoretical costs of any repair, the Grande Costa D’Avorio is thought likely to be scrapped, according to one report.
Grimaldi has also asked the court to set a deadline for filing claims and to prevent future legal suits, except for actions to recover damages or with respect to injury, death, loss, and damage from the casualty.
The incident has all the signs of becoming a long and drawn-out dispute when it comes to liability. The US Coast Guard has not indicated any timeline for when it might issue its report.
The salvage team took four weeks to clear the vessel, of which there were a mixture of new and pre-owned cars and vans and other rolling equipment on board.
Damage to the cars varied depending on their location and the spread of the fire.
The vessel was also loaded with 157 containers stored on deck in the forward areas of the ship. Firefighters were successful in containing the fire so that the containers were undamaged.
2011-built, Italy-flagged, 47,232 Grande Costa D’Avorio is owned by Grimaldi Deep Sea SpA and managed by Grimaldi Group SpA of Naples, Italy. It is entered with NorthStandard on behalf of Grimaldi Deep Sea SpA.