NTSB concludes hearing on Grande Costa D’Avorio fire

On January 18th the US Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded its formal public hearing proceedings into the fire on car carrier Grande Costa D’Avorio (IMO 9465382), which occurred aboard the ship in the Port of Newark, New Jersey on July 5th 2023.

The hearing detailed the condition of the Grande Costa D’Avorio prior to and at the time of the fire, including the cargo loading process for vehicles at the Port of Newark, initial response actions by the ship’s crew, and subsequent response and recovery efforts by local land-based fire departments.

The US Coast Guard and NTSB will now compile their independent Reports of Investigation, inclusive of recommendations to improve maritime and first-responder safety and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Eventually both the USCG and NTSB will issue separate reports of findings.

Preliminary recommendations from the USCG were published on November 20th 2023, through Marine Safety Alert 09-23. The USCG advised the creation of coordinated marine firefighting preparation efforts nationwide through the deployment of area contingency plans.

The fire on the Grande Costa D’Avorio while it was being loaded at Port Newark with 1,200 cars bound for West Africa generated dense black smoke that limited visibility to about a metre. The floor was so hot it made the soles of a firefighter’s boots begin to peel off.

Two firefighters had entered the vessel but soon broadcast the emergency message “we cannot find our way out!”

Newark Fire Captain Augusto “Augie” Acabou said over his radio that “we are lost.”

That turned the mission from one of fighting the fire to rescuing the two firefighters – Captain Acabou and fellow Newark Fire Department Captain Wayne Brooks Jr. Experienced firefighters but not maritime specialists, they had become disoriented in the heat, smoke and darkness.

The fire began at around 21:00 local time July 5th when a Jeep Wrangler that was being used by stevedores to push the mostly inoperative vehicles up steep ramps, caught fire. A port worker jumped out of the driver’s door and ran for portable fire extinguishers. These were inadequate to prevent the fire spreading rapidly.

With no specialist fire department in place for the Port, the Newark Fire Department was tasked to respond. About 45 minutes later it requested assistance from the North Hudson Regional Fire Department and the New Jersey Regional Fireboat Task Force. However, just two minutes later, a deputy fire chief cancelled that request. Michael Richardson, a fire fatality investigator with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, testified on January 12th that “he did not believe those resources were needed at that time”.

Richardson said under cross-examination by a lawyer for the Port company that cancellation was made at a time when it was not obvious that the fire extended beyond some cars burning at the top of the 12-deck ship.

Unfortunately, the decision was a significant one. Conditions worsened and several firefighters expressed concern about not having enough personnel and oxygen tanks at the scene, Richardson said.

At 23:13 a second mutual aid call for help was issued. Firefighters in Elizabeth and Jersey City arrived to help. Finding Acabou and Brooks was the top priority. Newark firefighters searched on deck 10, where the fire began, and found Acabou, who was unconscious and unresponsive, standing upright, pinned between two vehicles so tightly that no one could move him, or the vehicles. The face plate of his breathing apparatus was partially dislodged. Rescuers hooked a replacement unit up to him, which they had to replace several times. It took 70 minutes and a hydraulic rescue tool to dislodge Acabou, after which he had to be carried away from the burning areas of the ship, up a staircase to the top deck, and across the by-now extremely hot metal. They placed him in a horizontal rescue basket and at 00:45 a ship-top crane to lowered him to the dock, which was more than two hours after his mayday call.

Meanwhile, some of the rescuers themselves encountered difficulties. At least one of two Elizabeth firefighters issued a mayday emergency call for assistance from a stairwell not far from where the missing firefighters were being sought. The Elizabeth rescuers were found and led to safety.

However, Captain Brooks was still missing.

Additional mutual aid from other departments, including New York City, fanned out in search of him. Jersey City firefighters spooled out all 200ft of rescue line and could go no further. New York City firefighters picked up the trail from there, advancing another 75ft. Along the way, someone found Brooks’ flashlight lying on the ground. Soon after a personal location motion-sensor alarm that firefighters wear, which activates when they are motionless for more than a short time, went off. That sound led them to Brooks, whom they found at 02:09. He was lying on the floor near a ship column, also unconscious and unresponsive. His helmet was found some distance away from him. His radio was never located.

Brooks was lowered onto the dock by crane at about 03:10. Both he and Acabou were pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

2011-built, Italy-flagged, 47,232 gt Grande Costa D’Avorio is owned and managed by Grimaldi of Naples, Italy. It is entered with NorthStandard on behalf of Grimaldi Deep Sea SpA.