CCICADA’s MCAT Project Scenario Realized in Port of New York/New Jersey Ship Fire

Fire on the Grande Costa D’Avorio

Fire on the Grande Costa D’Avorio
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The Italian-flagged Grande Costa D’Avorio is a RORO (“roll-on roll-off”) car-carrying freighter. On July 5, 2023, it was at the dock in the Port of Newark, loaded with 1200 non-electric used vehicles and 157 non-hazardous containers, when a fire broke out. Sadly, two firefighters from Newark died in the fire, and five others were injured. It took five days for the fire to be extinguished.

Fires on vessels are a major concern for mariners. They are remarkably difficult to put out, even when there are professional firefighters on hand.

A major fear in the maritime domain is the difficulty of putting out a ship fire when lithium-ion batteries are involved, e.g., with a load of electrical vehicles. Fortunately, the electrical vehicles on board the Grande Costa D’Avorio had been off-loaded in Baltimore, or things might have been worse.


The Marine Transportation System (MTS) is a vital part of the nation’s supply chain. The vast majority of U.S. overseas trade is carried by the MTS, and this, in turn, plays a major role in the nation’s GDP and overall prosperity. The MTS is used to many kinds of disruptions, including labor disputes, hurricanes, collisions, and, of course, fires.

While the MTS is resilient, multiple disruptions occurring in overlapping time periods can have unexpected impacts. We know little about how these disruptions interact and how they impact downstream businesses dependent on a smooth-functioning MTS. This motivated CCICADA’s project on “Modeling the Impact of Complex Multi-vector Disruptions to the Marine Transportation System (MCAT). In the MCAT project, CCICADA, in collaboration with two other DHS Centers of Excellence, the CREATE Center led by USC and the CAOE Center led by Arizona State, is studying examples (scenarios) of multiple, overlapping disruptions, identifying their potential economic impact (both direct and indirect), and identifying and evaluating potential countermeasures.

The “New York Scenario”

One such scenario involves multiple, overlapping disruptions to the Port of New York/New Jersey. The Kill van Kull is a narrow, congested 3-mile strait used by 80 to 90 percent of the container ship traffic in the Port. The U.S. Coast Guard has often worried about a situation that would block the KVK and the major impact such a blockage would have on the Port of New York/New Jersey and, more generally, on the MTS and the economy as a whole. Early in the MCAT project, U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York planned an exercise on just such a blockage and CCICADA was included.

Kill van Kull Credit: NASA

MCAT’s “New York Scenario” is designed around a background of increased dwell time for containers.  A combination of truck driver, chassis, and warehouse shortages has significantly increased the time containers were held in terminals in the NY/NJ area. This has already disrupted things in the port.

Now, add to that the following: A ship carrying fireworks and industrial chemicals catches fire in the KVK. Smoke from burning chemicals affects the surrounding area. An escort tug loses connection and the vessel runs aground. It takes four days to extinguish the fire, which cannot be towed to safety until the fire is extinguished. There are four more days of daytime, one-way traffic in the KVK. This part of the scenario was developed with detailed input from USCG Sector NY and also the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.

While the fire in this scenario took place while the vessel was moving and not in port, it was scarily predictive of the fire in the Port of Newark.

And Then There is a Cyber-Attack

 The MCAT scenarios include multiple disruptions. In the New York Scenario, just when the impacts of the KVK blockage are beginning to subside a bit, there is a cyber-attack. Malware affects a terminal operating system at the Port of Newark-Elizabeth, affecting ability to track status, location, and destination of containers. This further increases terminal dwell time issues resulting from the background scenario. Other terminals take their systems offline for 24 hours to ensure that the malware has not affected them. Occasional rechecks slow down operations for another week.

Computer operators are able to hijack terminal operation networks – credit: Don Hankins, Creative Commons

Is this realistic? We have seen multiple cyber-attacks on ports in recent years. CCICADA Assistant Director Dennis Egan has served on the cyber security subcommittee of the Coast Guard Sector New York’s Area Maritime Security Committee since its formation. The U.S. government is very concerned about cyber security in the ports. In February 2024, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to strengthen the cybersecurity of U.S. ports.

In October 2023, Coast Guard Sector NY conducted an exercise that addressed some of the second portion of the MCAT scenario – a cyber-attack spreading across multiple port operators. Again, this was scarily similar to the complicating disruption in MCAT’s New York Scenario.

Following a March 2023 discussion with RADM John Mauger, then Commandant of USCG District 1, a CCICADA team was invited to participate in that Coast Guard cyber exercise in October and in the hotwash in November.

Where Next?

Another MCAT scenario starts with a labor strike in the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. This is followed by a wildfire leading to a power outage at the port. And when the power finally is beginning to be restored, there is an explosion on vessel in the port, leading the Coast Guard to raise the Maritime Security (MARSEC) Level to 2, which requires numerous inspections and leads to further slowdowns in port operations. We can only hope that this scenario is not as scarily predictive as the New York Scenario.

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