Injured Jacksonville Firefighters Sue Over Ship Fire

Ten Jacksonville firefighters who were injured in a ship fire in June have filed suit against six entities that they claim are responsible for their injuries. The injured firefighters, Captain Kristopher Jolly, Lt. Jeremy Lee, Chief Matthew Cipriani, Firefighter Paramedic Shawn O’Shell, Lt. Paul Masci, Firefighter Nicholas Gettler, Engineer Landon Simmons, Firefighter Paramedic Samuel Banks, Firefighter William Reed and Engineer Wesley Miller, were caught in an explosion aboard the cargo ship Hoegh Xiamen.

The suit names Hoegh Autoliners Shipping, Hoegh Autoliners Management, Hoegh Autoliners, Horizon Terminal Services, Grimaldi Deep Sea and SSA Marine as defendants. It alleges that:

  • On June 4, 2020, the Hoegh Xiamen, an approximately 600-foot long by 103.5-foot wide roll on roll off cargo ship was berthed at JAXPORT’s Blount Island Marine Terminal in Jacksonville, Florida to facilitate the loading of approximately 1,500 used/junked/wrecked cars as cargo for international transport to west Africa.
  • It is well known that transporting used/junked vehicles is dangerous as these vehicles are prone to catch fire.
  • While new vehicles are normally fitted with a transportation mode which disables most of the internal electrical circuits and prevents electrical faults (all intended to prevent fires) during shipment, this feature is absent in old cars.
  • Shortly after loading operations were completed on the afternoon of June 4, 2020, a fire started on deck 7 or 8 of the Hoegh Xiamen.
  • The fire burned and strengthened inside the vessel for an unknown amount of time before Jacksonville Fire & Rescue was contacted to provide emergency assistance.
  • The fire was able to burn undetected, because the Hoegh Xiamen crew had elected to disable and turn off all the fire detection systems while the ship was docked at the port or alternatively because the fire detection systems simply did not work.
  • Upon reaching the scene, the first responders were presented with a huge 15 floor cargo ship which was burning uncontrollably from the inside cargo holds.
  • The firefighters attempted to communicate with the Hoegh Xiamen crew to ascertain the location of the fire, what firefighting efforts of the crew had taken place before their arrival, how to get to the fire, and the locations of the ship’s fire hose connections.
  • However, communication was nearly impossible as the Hoegh Xiamen crew spoke and/or understand very little English, and could not communicate with the first responders or provide meaningful information concerning the ship, the location of the fire, or even how to get to it.
  • Due to the Hoegh Xiamen crew’s inability to communicate the location of the fire and how to get to it, JFRD had to send reconnaissance crews into the dark, burning, ship to find the fire, and to find a route to access and fight the fire.
  • The failure of Defendants Hoegh and Grimaldi to provide an adequately trained and prepared crew, and the crew’s inability to communicate with first responders in Jacksonville, caused a critical 1 hr 40-minute delay from the time the fire was first reported until JFRD could even begin fighting the fire.
  • At … 18:45, there was a huge explosion within the ship.
  • The firefighters heard a “growl” or “roar’ and could feel the entire ship begin to vibrate and the Firemen were hit by the explosion that roared down the stairwell, blasting them with continuous severe heat while they were trapped in the stairwell of the ship.

The suit was filed today in Duval County Circuit Court. It alleges four counts of negligence, each of which is under the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act set forth in 46 U.S.C. § 30301. The firefighters’ spouses also listed as plaintiffs.

Here is a copy of the complaint. Thank you to Attorney Ben Richard from Pajcic & Pajcic.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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