UNION — A top officer of an Italian cargo ship that caught fire last summer in one of America's busiest seaports broke down in sobs Thursday recalling his crew's initial efforts to put out the blaze, saying they “are broken” that two New Jersey fire captains lost their lives battling the blaze.

Benito LaFauci, the chief mate of the Grande Costa D'Avorio, testified at a hearing before the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board into the cause of the July 5 fire that killed Newark Fire Department Captains Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr.

The ship is owned by the Grimaldi Group and was being loaded with 1,200 vehicles bound for foreign markets at Port Newark when the blaze broke out.

LaFauci detailed the crew's efforts to fight the blaze immediately after it broke out, including the use of handheld fire extinguishers, the connection of a firefighting hose to a water delivery system, and the activation of a carbon dioxide fire suppression system. LaFauci then asked to address the firefighter's families directly.

“I'd like to say from myself, Grimaldi and my crew: We are broken that two brave firefighters lost their lives on board,” LaFauci said as he broke down in tears, burying his face in his hands as sobs wracked his body.

He tried to regain his composure while wiping tears from his eyes with two fists full of tissues before continuing.

“We all send our deepest condolences to the families,” he said. “We tried our best to extinguish the fire.”

At the opening of the hearing, which will span nearly two weeks, a port worker whose job was to push vehicles onto the ship and up a steep ramp to upper levels of the vessel recounted how he escaped his Jeep Wrangler when it burst into flames after maneuvering a vehicle into place. The families maintain the Jeep was observed to be emitting smoke earlier that same day.

The dead firefighters’ families announced plans in October to sue Grimaldi as well as two stevedore companies involved in loading the vessel. An attorney for Grimaldi has declined comment.

A preliminary investigation by the Coast Guard and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicated that the Newark Fire Department “had little to no maritime firefighting training, experience or familiarization with cargo ships of any type,” according to a Coast Guard safety alert issued Nov. 20.

While seeking the cause of the fire, the inquiry will not seek to affix blame to anyone, Barger said. It will instead issue safety recommendations beyond those included in the alert. That guidance recommended that local fire departments and ports establish regular shipboard firefighting education and training, including language translation capabilities for non-English-speaking crews.

(Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission)

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM