Two firefighters die battling serious ship fire at New Jersey port

A car carrier fire aboard the Grimaldi Deep Sea container/vehicle carrier RoRo Grande Costa d’Avorio (IMO 9465382) has resulted in the death of two firefighters from a local firefighting operation in Newark, New Jersey. The fire continued to burn at the weekend and looked likely to continue to do so for several more days. Thermal imaging drone footage of the ship fire was released by the Elizabeth, NJ, Police Department, showing that the main source of the fire was deep within the ship, which meant that all firefighters could do was address the surface flames and heat in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading.

The US Coast Guard, which is leading a Unified Command, said that the fire was contained, but that the area was too hot to reach and for now all they could do at the moment was to continue cooling the perimeter.

The 692ft vessel was completing the loading of about 1,200 vehicles at Port Newark, New Jersey on July 5th when the fire was first detected. At first it involved only five to seven cars, but it spread rapidly. There were also 157 containers on board.

The cars aboard the vessel were feeding the fire, with reports of explosions being heard primarily from the petrol in the cars’ fuel tanks. Grimaldi said that there were no electric vehicles aboard and that it was not aware of any hazardous cargo. The containers loaded at the front of the Grande Costa D’Avorio have so far not been involved in the fire.

The fire started on Deck 10 and was reported during the mid-evening of July 5th, shortly after the vessel had arrived from Baltimore, Maryland. The crew attempted to control it with a Halon fire suppression system. On Wednesday night the fire spread to decks 11 and 12, but by Thursday morning the incident was reported as believed under control from 23:30 Wednesday night, and that firefighters continued to cool the ship.

Something, however, appears to have gone awry. Whether the Thursday morning assessment was wrong, or if something else happened, was not yet clear. However, it was reported on Friday morning that “the fire spread significantly overnight” and had reached decks 7 through to 9, while continuing on decks 10 to 12. Significant scoring had begun to appear on the superstructure, with flames at times on the weather deck and smoke emanating from the vessel.

Crews reported that the fire was burning so hot that the water coming off the area had reached boiling point and was scalding the firefighters. Fire boats from the New York City Fire Department continued to assist.

It was when local fire departments responded to the fire on Wednesday night during a first and second alarm that two firefighters became trapped in the ship and were killed. The USCG has since updated that six other firefighters were injured.

Some reports claimed that the local firefighters did not have the right equipment and their two-inch hoses did not connect to the one-inch European connections aboard the vessel. Newark’s fire chief also said his department was not trained for shipboard fires.

The local firefighters have since been replaced by a team from Donjon Marine that is trained to deal with shipboard fires. However, the Donjon Marine team said that it was “a challenging situation”. The more water that gets poured onto and into the vessel, the more unstable it will become. By late Friday the vessel was calculated to have a three-degree tilt towards the dock. Donjon Marine was working to create drains for the water, but said that debris was blocking the ship’s scuppers. They said they had been attempting to poke holes to drain some of the water from the upper decks. Salvage teams were working to remove water from the vessel and counter the list caused by the masses of water on the vessel.

Meanwhile the port said that, as of Friday, 99.5% of its container operations were not being impacted. However, the port was concerned that the vessel could lose its stability and roll. On Friday the Port Newark Channel from Berth 18 inward was closed. Air quality in the area was being monitored. This had already been under alerts because of the weather and current high air temperatures.

The focus currently remains on containing the fire to the upper decks. Early investigations indicated that there had not been any oil leaks, with zero-to-minor sheening of the harbour.

The USCG’s Unified Command covers the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Newark Fire Department, and Gallagher Marine Systems, the representative for the ship operator, supported by federal, state and local emergency response agencies.

Zeita Merchant, Captain of the Port of New York and Jersey, said that “on behalf of the Unified Command, I would like to express my heartfelt condolences to the families and colleagues of the two firefighters who tragically lost their lives, and those injured during the response. We continue to work closely with our partner agencies and neighbouring jurisdictions. Together, we are pooling our resources, expertise, and equipment to enhance the safety of all responders and maximize the effectiveness of our response efforts.”

At a UC press conference on Friday it emerged that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey does not have its own fire department, but relies on the fire departments of local communities. As has been shown, these local community fire departments might not have the specialist skills needed to fight major shipboard fires.

Grimaldi said it was yet not known how the fire started. No fuel spill had been reported. The vessel has 28 crewmembers.

WK Webster reported that “we are advised that professional salvors have been instructed to provide assistance to the vessel, acting under LOF terms. Consequently, Salvage Security will be required to be provided by a party acceptable to the Salvors or the Council of Lloyd’s on behalf of cargo interests and W K Webster will be able to assist in this regard”.