Two Firefighters Who Died Aboard Burning Con/Ro Were Lost in Smoke

The suspected origin of the fire on Deck 10 (USCG)
The suspected origin of the fire on Deck 10 (USCG)

Published Jan 16, 2024 9:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a U.S. Coast Guard investigative hearing on Tuesday, a Newark firefighter testified that the two men who died aboard the con/ro Grande Costa D'Avorio last year got lost in the smoke as they attempted to exit the ship.

Oswald Robetto, a Newark Fire Department captain, was on Deck 10 with colleagues Augusto Acabou, Wayne Brooks, Jr. and a fourth firefighter during the response effort. Brooks was using a hose to apply boundary cooling on the overhead, he said. At this point, Batallion Chief Al Maresca radioed in and ordered the men to wrap up and come out of the compartment. 

They retreated through the smoke-filled interior, using the firehose to guide them to safety. As they moved along the deck, the smoke thickened, and Brooks' mask gave an alert that he was running low on air. He moved to the front of the line. 

As they moved along, Robetto encountered a kink in the hose, and he became confused: a kink should have been "impossible." 

"I got stuck and I hesitated," he said. He got disoriented and lost contact with the hose. In the thick smoke, he could not find it again, so he began hunting for a wall to follow to safety. His air was also running low, and he radioed for help. At this point, the firefighters had been working aboard the con/ro for about half an hour. 

Robetto made it out before his air ran out, but Acabou and Brooks remained behind. Their absence was only detected when the fire crew mustered. Both men died in the fire and their bodies were recovered later. 

In testimony, fire department officials told the Coast Guard that they had considerable difficulties with communications during the response. Their radio systems did not work well, and they had a hard time speaking with the crew because of language barriers. 

The battalion chief, Maresca, told the panel that he had never fought a shipboard fire before, nor did he have any training in this specialty. His initial impression of the situation was that it was a minor fire. Even after talking with the crew and having a look at the scene on Deck 10, "we didn't know where this fire was burning." 

After putting out two burning cars on Deck 10, the responders thought that the fire was out. “We weren’t fighting a fire. I thought nothing of it. There really was nothing going on until they [Robetto, Acabou and Brooks] got lost," said Maresca. 

The final outcome was tragic. Search teams found Acabou wedged tightly between two cars, near the exit. Brooks was found further in the hold, without his helmet, flashlight or radio. 

Courtesy NIOSH / USCG