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Witnesses testify Jeep that caused deadly Port Newark fire showed no signs of issues

The public heard for the first time directly from the men who were working on the ship when the fire began.

Chris Keating

Jan 10, 2024, 10:48 PM

Updated 160 days ago

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The United States Coast Guard began a hearing Wednesday into the fire that started on a cargo ship at Port Newark. The July 2023 fire led to the deaths of two Newark firefighters - Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks.
The public heard for the first time directly from the men who were working on the ship when the fire began. The line of questioning focused mainly on the Jeep Wrangler that caught fire. The panel wants to hear about who was driving the Jeep, what they were using it for and its physical condition.
Before that fire started aboard the Grande Coste D’Avorio, men working as “lashers” were using vehicles to physically push cars onto the ship.
Gaven Puchinsky was driving the yellow Jeep Wrangler to push cars when it caught fire. He testified that before the engine burst into flames, he saw no warning signs on the dash and no smoke or overheating. But he says he did hear a “clunking sound.”
“It looked like the flames were coming out of the hood and into the window of the car,” Puchinsky said.
He says his co-workers yelled at him to get out of the Jeep.
“I knew there were fire extinguishers every couple of feet on the wall. I ran to one, ran back to the car, pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher and started trying to put the fire out,” Puchinsky said.
Mechanic Peter Zyla testified that he was not told about any overheating of the Jeep on July 5. Zyla said he didn’t touch the Jeep on July 5 unless it perhaps needed fuel.
Another lasher, Austin Costanzo, testified that the Jeep had a mechanical issue earlier in the year but that he didn’t see an issue on the day of the fire.
This testimony goes against the argument put forth by an attorney for the victims’ families that the Jeep was seen smoking from the engine earlier in the day.
The fire started just before 9 p.m. on July 5. Newark firefighters boarded the ship and attempted to put the fire out as it spread to other cars. Brooks and Acabou died fighting the fire.
Their families are suing ship owner Grimaldi, the city of Newark and Ports America.
This hearing is expected to go on for a total of two weeks. The panel will hear from 13 witnesses in all.


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