After Fatal Ship Fire, Newark Mayor Wants Special Port Unit


Mayor Ras J. Baraka said he had begun discussions with the Port Authority and Coast Guard about creating a special team to battle shipboard fires.

Three weeks after two firefighters from his city died battling a blaze aboard an Italian cargo ship, the mayor of Newark said he wanted to create a unit within the fire department that would be specially trained to respond to emergencies in the city’s giant commercial port.

The mayor, Ras J. Baraka, said on Wednesday that he had met with top officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey this week to discuss how to be better prepared for a fire aboard a ship at Port Newark. He said that the U.S. Coast Guard would also be involved in that planning.

“We are going to get people from each of these groups to come together and figure out how do we put together a unit that responds particularly to issues that take place on the port, so we’re not just ringing the bell and sending everybody that we have to a fire,” Mr. Baraka said. “We want some particular people who are particularly trained in specialized kind of instances to be present as well.”

The Port Authority, which runs the port as well as Newark Liberty International Airport, said in a statement that the fire highlighted the urgent need for a review of emergency protocols that have been in place for 20 years. The agency does not employ any firefighters at the port, relying instead on responders from Newark and the neighboring city of Elizabeth.

Two Newark firefighters were killed in the ship fire that broke out at the Port of Newark on July 5th. Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

The agency said it would review all of its protocols “with a particular focus on arrangements in place to address fire emergencies.” It added that Port Authority officials were engaged “in a constructive and collaborative dialogue with Newark Mayor Baraka and city officials about this review.”

The mayor’s plan sounded good to officials of the city’s fire unions, who have been critical of the department’s understaffing, and the lack of adequate training in a force responsible for responding to one of the largest and busiest ports in the country.

“It’s a great idea,” said Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union. “I hope the mayor keeps his word here.”

Mr. Tarantino, a captain, said it had been nine years since any of the city’s firefighters trained aboard a ship, and only two of the men who received that training were still on active duty. He said the only recent training that dealt with shipboard fires was in a classroom, and it focused on the dangers posed by the lithium ion batteries that power electric vehicles.

The fatal fire that started on July 5 aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio burned for more than five days. The ship was carrying about 1,200 used cars and trucks bound for West Africa. None of them was an electric vehicle, according to the Coast Guard, which is overseeing an investigation into that fire.

Mr. Baraka’s remarks followed a ceremony for 19 graduates of the Newark Fire Academy. Nine of them plan to join the Newark Fire Division; the others will work in neighboring communities. The Newark fire chief, Rufus Jackson, said his nearly 500-member department had been 48 members short of a full complement and would now be 39 short. He said the department intended to hire an additional 50 firefighters this year.

Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark observes a moment of silence during a firefighters graduation ceremony on Wednesday.Andres Kudacki for The New York Times

Mr. Tarantino countered that eight of the department’s nine deputy chiefs were eligible to retire by Jan. 1, and three had already turned in papers signaling their intent to do so. “I hope the guys stay, because if they go, we’re really going to be in trouble,” he said.

While Mr. Baraka pledged that the fire department would receive more resources, he adamantly disputed the notion that staffing or equipment were factors in the deaths of the two firefighters, Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr.

“On the night of the event, I do not think, well I’m sure, that they were not understaffed at that incident and that they had the proper equipment,” Mr. Baraka said. “Those men didn’t die because we didn’t have enough trucks. That’s just not true. Those men didn’t die because there was not enough personnel there.”


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