NEWARK — Water continues to be poured on a cargo ship at Port Newark 36 hours after a fire started that claimed the lives of two firefighters. Officials said the fire could burn for several more days.

The fire on the upper decks of the Italian cargo ship Grande Costa d'Avorio got worse Thursday evening and Friday morning as some of the gas tanks in the 1,200 cars on the ship's deck and in the 10th story hold exploded, according to U.S. Coast Guard Unified Command Capt. Zeita Merchant.

The fire has darkened the ship's white exterior. Video showed water cascaded over the side of the ship.

Twenty firefighters and salvage crews are working on the ship with the goal of containing the fire to the upper decks to cool the vessel so the fire doesn't spread, getting the water that's been poured on the vessel and to stabilize the ship so it stops listing to the left, according to Gordon Lorenson of salvage company Donjon-Smit, who spoke during a Unified Command media briefing Friday morning about the fire.

"Access is tough, the heat is extreme. It's a steel box so it's a very complex situation and you need a good plan to put firefighters in the vessel to actually put out these fires out. It's burning very hot so currently a lot of the decks that are burning are inaccessible to our fire teams," Lorenson said.

The Grande Costa d'Avorio cargo ship burns at the Port of Newark
The Grande Costa d'Avorio cargo ship burns at the Port of Newark (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Safety at Port Newark

During the briefing, Merchant said the command's top priority is the safety of all responders and to make sure they have the needed tools. Top resources from around the country have been brought in as part of the response for salvage and overhauling the fire.

The unified command includes Newark Public Safety, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Gallagher Marine System which represents the ship owners.

Four stationary air monitors plus a mobile detection unit are in place around the ship. Except for two brief sulfer dixoide level spikes close to the ship early Friday morning, the air around the fire has tested at an acceptable level, according to Tom Wiker, president of Gallagher Marine Systems.

Wiker said there is no sheen of oil in the water.

The Port Authority, which operates the port, is also looking at reopening the largest port on the East Coast to commerce in the rest of the port, according to Port Director Bethann Rooney. The channel where the ship is docked has been closed to ship traffic since the fire started.

Rooney said there has been an increase in ships anchored outside the channel and a number of car carriers in the area parked around the port.

"We are working with the stevedores and the terminal operators and the auto processors on contingency plans in order to move that cargo," Rooney said.

The impact on the container terminals at the port has not been impacted by the fire, according to Rooney.

Cargo Ship Fatal Fire

Unanswered questions about the response

Merchant would not address comments by Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union, that the hoses used by fire fighters were not compatible with the Eurpoean style connections on the ship. As a result, firefighters had to use hoses they were unfamiliar with that had a lower pressure. It will be part of the investigation of the response to the fire, according to Merchant.

Newark Public Safety Director Fritz Fragé said the city has an agreement with the Port Authority to respond to all fires at Port Newark. Rooney said that the Port Authority only has its own fire brigades and rescue units at its airports to fulfill FAA requirements, and they rely heavily on local departments at its other facilities.

"They are not fire departments. They are there strictly to respond to the first 10 minutes or so to evacuate the plane and then we rely on the likes of the Newark Fire Department and the New York City Fire Department," Rooney said.

Fragé said that he and Newark Fire Cheif Rufus Jackson met Friday morning with the families of firefighters Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr. about their funerals. They lost their lives after being inside the ship early Thursday morning and put out a "mayday" for help getting out of the ship. Firefighers from all over the area responded to help extract them.

Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order for U.S. and New Jersey flags to fly at half-staff in recognition and mourning of Newark firefighters Acabou and Brooks Jr. at all state departments, offices, and agencies on Friday.

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