Worker recounts escape from cargo ship fire in Newark

January 12, 2024

A worker has recounted his escape from a burning vehicle during a cargo ship fire in Newark, New Jersey, which resulted in the tragic loss of two local firefighters.

Gaven Puchinsky, an employee involved in loading vehicles onto the Grande Costa d’Avorio, a cargo ship, provided a detailed account of the events leading up to the fire.

Startling noises and rapid escalation

Puchinsky was moving vehicles onto the ship at one of America’s busiest seaports when he heard an unusual “clunking” noise, which he compared to the sound of dropping a wrench.

He was on the 10th level of the 12-level ship, busy positioning a vehicle, when his colleagues urgently warned him of a fire.

“They started screaming at me to get out of the car because the car was on fire,” Puchinsky testified during a hearing conducted by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Efforts to extinguish and escape

Despite his attempts to douse the flames using fire extinguishers, Puchinsky found them ineffective against the growing fire.

He described a dire situation with “flaming fireballs dripping from the bottom of the vehicle.” Heeding his coworkers’ advice, Puchinsky evacuated the ship.

Link to the fatal incident

His testimony supports the claims of the families of Newark fire Captains Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr., who tragically lost their lives in the July 5 blaze.

The families allege that the Jeep Wrangler Puchinsky was using started the fire.

Another worker, Austin Costanzo, noted that this particular Jeep had a history of overheating.

Legal actions and investigation

Following the incident, the deceased firefighters’ families announced plans to sue The Grimaldi Group, the ship’s owner, and two stevedore companies.

Meanwhile, a preliminary investigation revealed the Newark Fire Department’s lack of maritime firefighting training.

This lack of expertise was highlighted in a Coast Guard safety alert.

Ongoing hearings and future safety measures

Commander Christian Barger, overseeing the investigation, mentioned that 13 witnesses, including crew members, cargo handlers, and firefighters, would testify.

The hearings aim to thoroughly understand the fire’s causes and the firefighters’ deaths to enhance safety in shipping and port communities.

However, the inquiry will focus on issuing safety recommendations rather than assigning blame.

FSJA Comment

The tragic incident aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio highlights critical gaps in maritime safety and emergency response protocols.

The testimonies of Gaven Puchinsky and others provide insight into the rapid escalation of the fire, underscoring the need for effective firefighting strategies in maritime environments.

The ongoing hearings serve a crucial purpose in identifying systemic issues and recommending improvements.

Enhancing maritime firefighting training and establishing robust communication channels, especially for non-English-speaking crews, are vital steps toward ensuring the safety of all involved in such operations.

This incident not only raises awareness of the unique challenges faced in maritime emergencies but also honors the memory of the brave firefighters who lost their lives in service.

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