When flames raced through a huge cargo ship in Port Newark, New Jersey on Wednesday, it wasn’t some specialized nautical team that ventured into its blazing upper decks. There were city firefighters whose last job might have been to rush to a burning house or downed wires, or treat someone with chest pains or help a woman in labor.
“Normal guys” – that’s what firefighters who die on the job are often called. Two Newark men, Augusto Acabou, 45, known as Augie, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49, ran aboard that burning ship and did not return. Both regular guys, yes, but each specifically exceptional.
They were products of Engine 16 in the working class, historically Portuguese neighborhood of Newark, the Ironbound, working in a red brick firehouse on Ferry Street. It was a few hundred meters from the bustle of the main commercial drag with its bakeries and restaurants, surrounded by houses and apartments, schools and shops.
The firehouse and its residents were community fixtures, teaching children about fire prevention at the elementary school around the corner and chatting with familiar passers-by.
In 2005, Matthew R. Cordasco was a fire chief with a spot to fill Engine 16, and he was drawn to a new graduate of the academy, Wayne Brooks Jr.
“I’ve heard good things about him,” Mr. Cordasco, now retired, said Thursday. “I said, ‘I have an opening,’ and he said ‘Sure.’ He wanted to learn from the beginning.”
The young firefighter was a high school fencer, Mr. Cordasco learned, and attacked fires the way he would face an opponent in a match.
“He was always aggressive – he wanted to get in there, get to the heat of the fire,” he said. “He wanted to be on top, the guy at the front of the hose, putting out the fire.”
Mr. Cordasco retired in 2010, and Mr. Brooks would move to a nearby ladder company. But he stayed in touch with his old boss, recently beaming with pride as he told him his daughter would become a nurse.
When Mr Cordasco learned how his protégé had died on Thursday – captured after running aboard the ship – he was devastated. He was not surprised.
“I’m sure there was no hesitation,” Mr. Cordasco said. “He became full. You don’t know who is there, you don’t have a manifest of the ship. You get up and you go to work. That’s the mindset of a firefighter.”
Like Mr. Brooks, Mr. Acabou was a young athlete – football at East Side High School in Newark. At 45, he’s long outgrown his helmet-and-pads, but when he learned last winter that a former coach had been diagnosed with cancer, he was quick to help, taking him to the store for groceries or getting them himself.
Typical, said one of his two younger brothers, João Acabou: “He had the biggest heart.”
He was seen as a rising star at Engine 16 and had just passed the exam to reach the rank of captain. “He is a captain for us,” said captain Helder Fonseca.
The firefighters work 24-hour shifts once every four days. The relationships forged are different from those measured in eight-hour office shifts. You eat together, wake up together and see each other a lot.
“He was always happy,” said Captain Fonseca. “I never saw him sad. He was just a regular guy, a real gentleman with a lot of sweetness.” He laughed. “He was amazing.”
Capt. Jose Alvarez said Mr. Acabou saluting at the firehouse was a ritual.
“He’d take your hand and say, ‘Hey, cap, this is what we’ve got to do, and this is what we’ve got. what do you want for lunch We can cook or go out somewhere.’”
Every day, he ran from his home past the nearby Newark Firefighters Union hall — “It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold,” said Eddie Paulo, a lifelong friend and union vice president. “He was here with his weight vest on.”
The former football player took a position in the outfield for the firemen’s baseball team.
“If the bases were loaded and he popped the ball, he was so hard on himself,” said Mr. Paulo, 44, of Mountainside. “He thought he had let us all down. We were there to tell him, ‘It’s okay. It’s just a game, man.’”
The cities the firefighters called home began saying goodbye in their own ways Thursday.
Mr. Brooks lived in Union, and on Thursday morning, city firefighters arrived outside the white raised ranch house with pastries and orange juice and erected a red canopy to fend off the blazing sun. Police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers arrived in solemn procession.
Later, about 20 probationary Newark firefighters filed out of a red school bus to stand in formation outside the home. They stood in silence for minutes before saying hello, then lined up to express condolences.
“We come from a law enforcement, military, service-oriented family,” said Mr. Brooks’ cousin, Roger Terry Jr., a 54-year-old retired North Plainfield police officer.
The cousins were close, each godfather to the other’s daughter, each manning a grill or smoker at Mr. Brooks’ kitchens for his fellow firefighters — ribs, chicken and Mr. Brooks’ favorites, crab cakes.
When a passing car honked its horn on Thursday, Mr. Terry raised his fist in salute.
Outside the Ferlima building where Mr. Acabou rose in the ranks, Engine 16, a small row of flowers grew along the brick walls.
A black-ribbon bouquet was left by the Portuguese American Police Association. A bunch of blue daisies that a man in a Fire Department shirt had placed upside down. Captain Alvarez, who worked closely with the man he called Augie, bent down and brushed them off and straightened them out.
It seemed like these men were always there, always on the truck.
“When I was off duty and I would see a fire truck go by, and Augie and Brooks would recognize me,” Captain Alvarez said. “Not everyone does that. And I’m not saying that because they’re dead.
“That’s just the way they were. You can ask anyone.”
Elise Young, Erin Nolan and Tracey Tully contributed reporting.