JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three months after one of the biggest ship fires in decades in Jacksonville, 10 firefighters injured in a related blast are suing for their injuries.
The law firm Pajcic & Pajcic filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department employees on Tuesday, 90 days after an explosion that severely injured some of them.
Some had to be treated at the burn unit in Gainesville, and three first responders remain off the job due to their injuries.
A 15-floor cargo ship caught fire on June 4 in the St. Johns River while at Blount Island. The cause is still under investigation, but the plaintiffs’ attorney, Curry Pajcic, said the ship had just been loaded with 2,400 junked cars that were to be transported to western Africa.
At 6:45 p.m. June 4, while fighting the fire from the inside, at least 10 firefighters were in the stairwell when there was an explosion on the eighth deck.
“It was like a blast furnace, being trapped behind the engine of an F-16 (jet) blasting into you — extreme heat that keeps going and going and going,” Pajcic said. “And you have nowhere to go.”
At a news conference Tuesday, the Jacksonville-based lawyer described what the Jacksonville firefighters faced putting out a 1,000 degree Fahrenheit fire on a ship filled with scrapped cars.
“The ship had no flooding sprinkler system. This ship had no standpipes that the firefighters could plug their hoses in to put out the fire,” he added. “They had to drag a hose up the ramp, up the stairwell and into this deck.”
The explosion was nearly catastrophic. Despite their protective gear, the heat and flames caused severe burns on firefighters, snapping one rescuer’s arm. None of them died, but several were hospitalized, with some sent to the burn unit in Gainesville.
“These 10 firefighters are true American heroes,” Pajcic said. “They ran into the storm, a storm created by an irresponsible company and ill-equipped crew and dangerous cargo. It was a recipe for disaster.”
With two injured firefighters by his side, Pajcic outlined his reasons for a lawsuit against the companies involved: Hoegh Autoliners, Horizon Terminal Services, Grimaldi Deep Sea and SSA Marine.
Together, the companies have offices in Norway, Italy and the United States. Horizon has an office in Ponte Vedra Beach.
The plaintiffs are 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. Their spouses are also named.
The suit claims the crew loaded wrecked and junk cars to send to Africa without disconnecting the batteries and electrical systems. Pajcic said that while in port, the crew shut down the ship’s fire alarm system, and when time was crucial, the crew did not call 911 when the fire started. He said the crew did not speak English to communicate with first responders trying to learn more about the location of the fire.
It took more than 150 firefighters over a week to put out the fire and cost the city of Jacksonville millions of dollars.
At the end of August, the U.S. Coast Guard escorted the damaged ship out to sea for scrap. That’s why Pajcic said he filed the suit this week. He said he and his team were trying to preserve any evidence of wrongdoing that’s left. He also said the companies didn’t appear to be cooperating.
Pajcic said the ship fire could have caused an explosion like the city’s never seen, likening it to what happened in Beirut’s port weeks ago.
“If this ship breaks up in the St. Johns River, fully loaded and ready to go, or explodes, the city feels the consequences for decades,” he noted.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are doing separate investigations.
News4Jax reached out to the companies involved for their response. As of early Tuesday evening, none of the businesses’ leaders had responded. They also had not yet been formally served with the litigation.
There’s no amount for the lawsuit. That would be decided in court if the case goes that far.