When flames raced through a huge cargo ship in Port Newark in New Jersey on Wednesday, it was not some specialized nautical team that ventured into its blazing upper decks. It was city firefighters, whose last job might have been rushing to a burning house or fallen wires, or treating someone with chest pains or helping a woman in labor.
“Regular guys” — that’s what people often call firefighters who perish on the job. Two men from Newark, Augusto Acabou, 45, known as Augie, and Wayne Brooks Jr., 49, ran onto that burning ship and didn’t come back. Both regular guys, yes, but each specifically exceptional.
They were products of Engine 16 in Newark’s working-class, historically Portuguese neighborhood, the Ironbound, working in a red-brick firehouse on Ferry Street. It was several hundred yards 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 inhabitants were community fixtures, teaching children 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 in Engine 16, and he was drawn to a new graduate from the academy, Wayne Brooks Jr.
“I’d heard good things about him,” Mr. Cordasco, now retired, said Thursday. “I said, ‘I have an opening,’ and he said ‘Definitely.’ He wanted to learn from the beginning.”
The young firefighter had been a high-school fencer, Mr. Cordasco learned, and attacked fires the way he would confront 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 the tip, the guy at the front of the hose, putting out the fire.”
Mr. Cordasco retired in 2010, and Mr. Brooks would transfer to a nearby ladder company. But he stayed in touch with his old chief, recently beaming with pride as he told him that his daughter was going to become a nurse.
When Mr. Cordasco learned how his protégé had died on Thursday — trapped after running onto the ship — he was devastated. He was not surprised.
“I’m sure there was no hesitation,” Mr. Cordasco said. “He went full-bore. You don’t know who’s there, you don’t have a manifest of the ship. You pull up and you go to work. That’s the mind-set of a firefighter.”
Like Mr. Brooks, Mr. Acabou had been a young athlete — football at East Side High School in Newark. At 45, he was long past his helmet-and-pads years, but when he learned last winter that a former coach had been diagnosed with cancer, he hurried 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 taken the exam to reach the rank of captain. “He is a captain to us,” said Capt. 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 a lot of one another.
“He was always happy,” Captain Fonseca said. “I never saw him sad. He was just a regular guy, a real gentleman with a lot of sweetness.” He chuckled. “He was awesome.”
Capt. Jose Alvarez said being greeted at the firehouse by Mr. Acabou was a ritual.
“He would shake your hand and say, ‘Hey, cap, this is what we need to do, and this is what we have. What do you want for lunch? We can cook or go out someplace.’”
Every day, he’d run from his home past the nearby Newark Firefighters Union hall — “Didn’t matter if it was hot or cold,” said Eddie Paulo, a lifelong friend and union vice-president. “He was out here with his weight vest on.”
The former football player took a position in the outfield for the firefighters’ 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 let us all down. We were there to tell him, ‘It’s OK. It’s just a game, man.’”
The cities the firefighters called home began saying goodbye in their own ways on Thursday.
Mr. Brooks lived in Union, and on Thursday morning, city firefighters arrived outside the white raised ranch house with bagels and orange juice and set up a red canopy to fend off the blazing sun. Police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers arrived in solemn procession.
Later, about 20 probationary firefighters from Newark filed out of a red school bus to stand in formation outside the home. They stood in silence for minutes before saluting, then lining up to express condolences.
“We come from a cop, military, service-oriented family,” said Mr. Brooks’s cousin, Roger Terry Jr., a 54-year-old retired police officer from North Plainfield.
The cousins were close, each godfather to the other’s daughter, each manning a grill or a smoker at Mr. Brooks’s cookouts for his fellow firefighters — ribs, chicken and Mr. Brooks’s favorite, crab cakes.
When a passing car honked its horn Thursday, Mr. Terry raised his fist in salute.
Outside the Ironbound building where Mr. Acabou was rising in the ranks, Engine 16, a little row of flowers grew along the brick walls.
A black-ribboned bouquet was left by the Portuguese American Police Association. A bunch of blue daisies that a man in a Fire Department T-shirt had placed tipped over. Captain Alvarez, who had worked closely with the man he called Augie, bent and brushed them off and righted them.
It seemed these men were always there, always on the truck.
“When I was off duty and I’d see a fire truck pass by, both Augie and Brooks would recognize me,” Captain Alvarez said. “Not everyone does that. And I’m not saying that because they died.
“It’s just the way they were. You can ask anybody.”
Elise Young, Erin Nolan and Tracey Tully contributed reporting.