Union, kin of firefighters killed in cargo ship blaze call for new Newark fire department leadership

Ed Kelly, president of the International Association of Firefighters union speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024 in Union N.J.
AP Photo/Wayne Parry

By WAYNE PARRY Associated Press

Relatives of two New Jersey firefighters who died battling a cargo ship fire last summer and the head of a powerful international firefighters’ union called Wednesday for the top leaders of the Newark Fire Department to be replaced, saying they had botched their response to the blaze.

The widow of Newark Fire Capt. Wayne Brooks Jr. and the younger brother of Capt. Augusto Acabou joined with Ed Kelly, the general president of the International Association of Firefighters, to denounce the leadership of former Fire Chief Rufus Jackson, who was promoted to assistant public safety director two months after the July 5, 2023, fire.

Their call came after Jackson testified at a hearing by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board that he did not assume command of firefighting efforts on the Italian-owned Grande Costa D’Avorio, leaving it in the hands of subordinates.

He also said most of his department had gone years without specialized training for fighting fires on board ships, even though the city is home to Port Newark, one of the nation’s busiest seaports, where the fatal blaze took place.

And Jackson testified that on the day of the fire, both of Newark’s fire boats were in working condition and able to be deployed, only to be contradicted by the head of a fire boat task force who testified that both of Newark’s boats were not in service that day. In fact, one had not been fit for duty for at least a year, said Francis Gorman, head of the New Jersey Regional Fireboat Task Force.

cargo ship firefighter
Emergency personnel battle against a fire aboard the Italian-flagged Grande Costa d’Avorio cargo ship at the Port of Newark, Friday, July 7, 2023, in Newark, N.J.AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

“The Newark Fire Department needs new leadership, period,” said Kelly, who joined relatives of the dead firefighters outside on a frigid afternoon during a break in Wednesday’s hearing. “The level of incompetence and negligence rises to, in my opinion, (being) criminal.”

Kelly said Newark firefighters “are actively talking about a vote of no-confidence in the now-promoted (assistant) director of public safety, Rufus Jackson, who was promoted from fire chief notwithstanding the incompetence he showed on July 5.”

The Coast Guard prohibited the media from attempting to interview witnesses, including Jackson, until the hearing has concluded. A lawyer representing the city during the hearing declined comment, referring inquiries to a city spokesperson, who did not immediately respond Wednesday.

Kelly also said New York City firefighters “had to self-dispatch” to the Newark fire “because no one requested them.” Testimony at the hearing indicated that an official with a fire department outside Newark was in contact with New York City firefighters and encouraged them to come help because the situation had grown dire.

It was a New York search-and-rescue detachment that ultimately found Brooks.

The fire began when a Jeep Wrangler being used by a port employee to push vehicles bound for west Africa onto the 12-level cargo ship caught fire, quickly spreading flames to some of the 1,200 vehicles on board the ship.

Acabou and Brooks became separated from a third captain on the dark, smoke-filled deck where the fire broke out, and they eventually perished there. Acabou was found wedged so tightly between vehicles that it took over an hour to extricate him using a hydraulic power tool known as the “jaws of life.” Brooks was found lying on the deck some distance away.

Both were eventually carried to the top deck and lowered to the dock using a shipboard crane. Both were pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

“Clearly, clearly Augie and Wayne’s death was preventable,” said Miguel Acabou, the younger brother of the dead firefighter. “What we heard here today, what all of you heard today, is extremely upsetting to me and my family.”

Michele Brooks, the widow of the other dead firefighter, said listening to testimony about the actions of fire department leaders during the blaze worsened painful emotional wounds that had yet to heal.

“The families and I are deeply, deeply disturbed,” she said. “We are heartbroken all over again.”