'We cannot find our way out': New details revealed in hearings into deaths of Newark firefighters

Dan Krauth Image
Thursday, January 18, 2024
New details revealed in hearings into deaths of Newark firefighters
Dan Krauth has more on the investigation.

NEWARK, New Jersey (WABC) -- The families of two fighters killed in the line of duty in Newark say their deaths were preventable.

"The family and I are deeply concerned, upset and heart broken by the things we've learned," said Michelle Books, wife of firefighter Wayne Brooks.

The families of Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks spoke out after the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board held five days of hearings to hear from first responders about what went wrong.

The firefighters described a fire that quickly grew dark and dangerous and a chaotic environment that was made worse by bad radio communication and a kink in a fire line.

7 On Your Side Investigates attended five days of the hearings where more than a dozen people testified. Here is some of what was discovered:

  • The ship crew members could not close the watertight door on Deck 12 due to a mechanical problem with the control panel
  • A battalion chief said the radio communication was "horrendous"
  • There was "confusion" over how many firefighters and which ones were missing
  • Investigators questioned whether turning on the ship's ventilation system helped or hurt the fire. A first responder stated it made conditions worse on the deck where the firefighters were trapped
  • The Coast Guard questioned why it took more than an hour to call for mutual aid
  • The Coast Guard questioned Newark officials why the FDNY wasn't called sooner for help. The FDNY has oxygen tanks that last twice as long
  • An oxygen truck that arrived on the scene to replenish supplies was not working.
  • Left: Wayne Brooks, Jr. and right: Augusto Acabou

    The fire on July 5 broke out near a car on the 10th floor of the ship docked at Port Newark. An Italian ship worker testified he was the first to spot the fire and tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher.

    "I tried my best to avoid this accident," he told investigators.

    Soon the Newark Fire Department rushed to the scene and onto the ship.

    "It just got worse, it just became darker and darker," said Captain Oswald Robetto.

    Robetto was the last to see Acabou and Brooks. He was walking behind them as they used the fire hose line as a guide to get off of deck 10 when the conditions deteriorated.

    "They were ahead of me, the last voice contact I had with them is they said 'The line's going this way', and I said 'Stay on the line, follow the line out'," said Robetto. "At this time I felt like they may have gotten out the door," he said.

    That's when the command post heard alarming news over the portable radios. They heard multiple mayday calls, including a transmission that said "We cannot find our way out we are lost."

    The Battalion Chief in charge of the rescue told investigators the radio communication was "horrendous."

    "The transmissions were garbled and a little bit sporadic," said Battalion Chief Steve LaPenta of the Newark Fire Department.

    Radio logs show firefighter Acabou wasn't located until more than an hour after the first mayday call. Firefighter Brooks was found about 20 minutes after that, by FDNY crews.

    The Coast Guard announced in November, that preliminary findings showed the Newark Fire Department had little to no maritime training or experience, despite being the agency in charge of port fires.

    When asked during the hearing if he was equipped to conduct shipboard operations, Captain Robetto responded "um, no."

    The Coast Guard also questioned Newark why it hasn't adopted nationally recognized fire training since the incident happened. The Battalion Chief said it hasn't been approved yet by the department.

    RELATED | Investigation underway into what sparked deadly cargo ship fire in Port Newark

    CeFaan Kim has more on what went wrong and what can be done after two firefighters were killed while battling a fire on a cargo ship at Port Newark.



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