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Hose kink in smoky darkness disoriented firefighter in ship blaze that killed 2 colleagues

UNION, N.J. (AP) — A kink in a fire hose stretched out in the smoky darkness of a cargo ship fire disoriented a New Jersey fire captain as he tried to follow the hose back to safety, separating him from two other firefighters who later died amid the blaze, the captain testified Tuesday.

Newark Fire Department Capt. Oswald Robetto testified at an investigative hearing being held by the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board into the July 5, 2023, fire on board the Italian-owned Grande Costa D'Avorio.

Fire Captains Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr. died in that fire at Port Newark, one of the nation's busiest seaports.

Robetto, Acabou and a third firefighter advanced into the smoke on deck 10, near the top of the 12-level ship where the fire broke out amid a cargo of 1,200 autos bound for west Africa.

They followed a hose line through the darkness, eventually reaching Brooks at its nozzle, who was spraying water on the ceiling, Robetto testified.

“I asked him, ‘What are you hitting?’ ” Robetto said. “He replied, ‘Just keeping the ceiling cool.’ ”

Brooks had a thermal imaging camera with him, a device that allows firefighters to see through smoke and look for signs of heat, such as flames or the body heat of a human being.

Robetto did a quick scan with the camera and did not find anything of concern, when a battalion chief ordered them to retreat with the hose back to where they had started on the deck.

“Let's go, they want us out,” he told Acabou and Brooks.

The three men turned around and began following the hose back out. Acabou was in front, Robetto in the middle and Brooks behind him.

At this point, Brooks's face mask started vibrating, a warning that his air supply was running low. Robetto directed Brooks to move to the head of the line, holding onto the firefighter's jacket to make sure he did not get lost during the switch, where visibility was no more than arm's length.

They slowly followed the hose line out, holding it in their hands.

Someone — Robetto did not recall who — said, “The line goes this way.” That's when Robetto noticed a kink in the hose, similar to the folded-over obstruction in a garden hose that prevents water from flowing.

“I got stuck; I hesitated,” Robetto testified. “I knelt down to look at the kink. I just kept saying to myself, ‘This is impossible. How did this happen?’”

Disoriented, Robetto said he left the line and began searching for a wall, as firefighters are trained to do when they lose their bearings in low-visibility situations. His own mask began to vibrate, meaning he, too was running low on air.

Robetto used his radio to issue a call for help. There was testimony last week indicating the call might have come from Acabou but Robetto said it was he who issued it.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” Robetto recalled yelling into the radio. “Engine 16, I'm separated from the line, separated from the others. I'm running low on air!”

Robetto eventually reached a doorway and safety. He believed Brooks and Acabou had made their way back to the end of the hose and safety as well.

They had not.

It was not until a roll call was taken on the ship's deck that it became clear the two firefighters were missing. Robetto recalled being on the deck, covered by a foot of water that was “boiling hot” due to the fire below.

“I was pretty much in shock at what had just happened,” he testified.

Acabou was found wedged tightly between vehicles; it took more than an hour to free him using a hydraulic rescue tool known as the “jaws of life.”

Brooks was found lying on in a different part of the same deck. Both were unresponsive and were declared dead at a Newark hospital after being lowered to the dock using a crane on board the cargo ship.

The hearing is scheduled to continue through Thursday.

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Follow Wayne Parry on X, formerly Twitter, at www.twitter.com/WayneParryAC