Two firefighters died while working to extinguish a raging fire Wednesday aboard an Italian cargo ship that was loading automobiles at Port Newark in New Jersey, the authorities said.
The firefighters “made an attempt to extinguish the fire and, because of the intense heat, they got pushed back out of the area where the initial fire was,” Chief Rufus Jackson of the Newark Fire Department said in a news conference early Thursday.
The firefighters who died on the ship, the Grande Costa d’Avorio, were not immediately identified.
“This was a tragedy, and my heart goes out to the family of each of these members and also the Newark Fire Department,” Chief Jackson said. “We’re going to continue to work, and we’re going to continue to pray for the family of the two members who were lost tonight.”
Port Authority police officers responded after 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday to a fire on a ship that was docked at Port Newark, said Lenis Valens, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The Grimaldi Group, the owner of the ship, said in a statement Thursday morning that the fire began on the vessel’s 10th deck as crew members and local stevedores moved cars, vans and trucks. The vessel, which generally operates between the United States and West Africa, carried more than 1,200 new and used vehicles and 157 containers, the company said. It said there were no electric cars or hazardous cargo on the ship, nor was it spilling fuel or in danger of sinking.
Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark said at a news conference that several fire companies responded to the scene. The New York Fire Department said several of its units responded after midnight, and the United States Coast Guard said on Twitter that it was also responding to the fire.
“Shipboard firefighting is a unique skill, and this is not a common fire for the city of Newark and the Newark firefighters,” Chief Jackson said. “This is a tragedy. This is something as a chief I never want to face.”
Chief Jackson said that emergency responders found that five to seven vehicles were on fire, and that the flames quickly extended to the 11th and 12th decks.
Representatives for the Newark Department of Public Safety, the Newark Fire Division and the U.S. Coast Guard did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“The fire is still happening now, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Baraka said during the news conference early Thursday. “We still have agencies and guys inside now still trying to put this fire out in this boat.”
“I saw the kinds of acts of bravery and camaraderie today that’s unparalleled,” he said. “It’s very, very traumatic for all of us in the city of Newark.”
Grimaldi said that it regretted the firefighters’ deaths, and that its “thoughts, prayers and sympathies are with their families and team currently.”
“At this time,” the company continued, “it is not known how the fire started but the company will undertake a full investigation in close cooperation with all relevant authorities.”
Grimaldi is based in Naples and has 130 vessels and 17,000 employees, according to its website. The company describes itself as Italy’s largest ship-owning group.
Last year, a ferry owned by Grimaldi caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu on its way to Italy, killing 11 people. Hundreds of others were rescued.
Port Newark Container Terminal, as the port is officially called, is 272 acres, or about a third the size of Central Park in Manhattan. In January 2022, a fire at a scrap metal recycling facility there produced smoke that wafted through Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The ports in New Jersey and neighboring New York State are owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
As of last year, the Port of New York and New Jersey was the second-largest container port by cargo volume in the United States — just behind the Port of Los Angeles and slightly ahead of the Port of Long Beach, also in California, according to Port Authority figures.
Of the $271 billion worth of goods that moved through the Port of New York and New Jersey in 2022, furniture was the top commodity import; vehicles and their parts were the top export.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.