Belgian Firefighter’s Widow Sues FDNY Over Rescue Boat Crash

The widow of a Belgian firefighter who was killed while on an FDNY marine watercraft that crashed into a tour boat on June 17, 2022, has filed suit against the City of New York and the tour boat’s owner. Heidi Vernmandel filed suit in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York naming the city, New York City Boat Tours LLC, and tour boat’s captain, Edward Mattiace.

Since the case involves admiralty law, the procedure is a bit unorthodox. The case was opened in December, 2022 by a petition filed by New York City Boat Tours LLC and Mattiace, seeking “exoneration from and limitation of liability pursuant to Title 46 U.S.C. §30501 et seq.” Vernmandel’s complaint was filed on June 23, 2023 as part of the original admiralty case.

Vernmandel and her husband, Johnny Beernaert, were being given a tour on FDNY Marine 1 Bravo, a 31-foot rigid hull inflatable vessel. As explained in her complaint:

  • At all relevant times, and in particular on June 17, 2022, Claimant/Third Party Plaintiff Heidi Vermandel and claimant’s decedent, Johnny Beernaert, were aboard the vessel the MARINE 1 BRAVO, which then was owned and operated by the CITY OF NEW YORK, and upon information and belief, continues to be owned and operated by the City of New York, as invited passengers of employee(s), servant(s) or agent(s) of the City of New York’s Fire Department (FDNY).
  • The fateful voyage began in the evening of June 17, 2022 starting in the East River of New York at approximately 10:00 p.m.
  • Prior to, and on June 17, 2022, the passenger vessel MARINE 1 BRAVO was unfit for its intended voyage, in ill repair, unsafe and unseaworthy, improperly manned and otherwise was unfit for voyaging that evening.
  • Prior to, and on June 17, 2022, plaintiff, NEW YORK CITY BOAT TOURS, LLC and EDWARD MATTIACE, its officers, servants, agents, and employees and/or other persons, were aware of and had full knowledge, or should have been aware and should have had full knowledge, of the HONCHO’s unsafe and unseaworthy conditions, ill repair, insufficient manning and that it was unfit for sea voyages.
  • On June 17, 2022, the City of New York, by its officers, servants, agents, and employees and/or other persons for whom third-party defendant was responsible, knowingly, recklessly, willfully, carelessly, and negligently operated the vessel MARINE 1 BRAVO, causing it to collide with the HONCHO.
  • On June 17, 2022, as a result of NEW YORK CITY BOAT TOURS, LLC and EDWARD MATTIACE,’s negligent, willful, callous, and reckless conduct in handling, navigating and using the passenger vessel HONCHO, and allowing it to get underway in an unseaworthy and unsafe condition, and through their actions caused the HONCHO to collide with the MARINE 1 BRAVO.
  • As a result, claimant suffered severe personal injuries, she suffered negligent infliction of emotional distress, she was in the zone of danger of being killed due the collision of the vessels and as a result suffered great physical and psychological trauma and pecuniary loss.
  • She suffered from and suffers from severe emotional injury as a result of seeing her husband caused to suffer serious injuries, horrible suffering and untimely traumatic death.
  • Her children Sybren Brent Beernaert and Iense Caro Beernaert have suffered severe emotional and psychological injury, pecuniary losses and grief.

The admiralty petition filed by New York City Boat Tours LLC and Mattiace tells a different version of events. Quoting from the admiralty petition:

  • Petitioner Edward Mattiace was at the helm of the Vessel [HONCHO] and traveling at approximately five (5) miles per hour in a south-westerly direction on the East River with his running, navigation, and all-around white mast lights on and functioning properly, while maintaining a proper look out, and in full compliance of the Inland Rules of Navigation.
  • During this same time, FDNY vessel MARINE 1 BRAVO, a 31-foot rigid hull inflatable vessel, was being operated in a dangerous and unsafe manner and at a high rate of speed and without all available navigation equipment in use in a north-easterly direction on the East River, without the proper lighting being displayed aboard this emergency response vessel, and with four civilian passengers aboard, including a visiting firefighter from Belgium, Johnny Beernaert.
  • The MARINE 1 BRAVO was also operating without the proper permission and authority being granted by the FDNY to take out civilians on a “harbor tour,” and without the vessel having the proper crew.
  • In the moments before the collision, the MARINE 1 BRAVO and the Vessel were approaching on a near reciprocal course.
  • Without any negligence on the part of the Vessel, the MARINE 1 BRAVO struck the Vessel on her portside bow at a high rate of speed of over 22 miles per hour in violation of the Inland Rules of Navigation.
  • The MARINE 1 BRAVO violated the Inland Rules of Navigation by operating at an excessive speed under prevailing conditions, failing to illuminate all required running and navigation lights, failing to have a proper look out, failing to use all available means to avoid a collision, and failing to give way, reduce speed and/or alter course to avoid a collision with the Vessel.
  • As a result of the foregoing collision, Johnny Beernaert was fatally injured. It is unknown if other passengers onboard the MARINE 1 BRAVO were also injured. There were no reported injuries to any of the passengers on the Vessel.

Here is a copy of the original admiralty petition:

Here is a copy of Vernmandel’s complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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