The reckless operation and “unsafe speed” of an FDNY fireboat on a pleasure cruise to the Statue of Liberty caused the death of a visiting Belgian firefighter, according to the findings of a Coast Guard probe obtained by The Post.

The deadly collision with a private fishing boat on the night of June 17, 2022 occurred because the lone firefighter piloting the Marine 1 Bravo zoomed along the East River at a top speed of 28 mph – giving the operator of the chartered vessel “Honcho,” — which was going at most 6 mph– just two seconds to react, according to a 28-page Coast Guard’s report.

Johnny Beernaert and his wife Heidi Vermandel

Visiting Belgian firefighter Johnny Beernaert was killed in 2022 during an East River pleasure cruise on an FDNY fireboat because the vessel was operating recklessly at an “unsafe speed” and all sorts of agency protocols were ignored, a U.S. Coast Guard probe found. His wife Heidi Vermandel is suing NYC over his death.FaceBook Johnny Beernaert

Marine 1 Bravo fireboat

Johnny Beernaert was killed after the bow of a private fishing boat rammed into the Marine 1 Bravo’s cabin.USCG

The joy ride on an FDNY fireboat meant for medical emergencies also lacked a mandatory “lookout” to help spot danger. The FDNY pilot failed to use radar to detect other vessels, the report says.

No one on the fireboat saw the crash coming.

In addition, the NYC Fire Department had no formal protocol for approving unofficial “sightseeing tours” requested by department members for friends and family, the investigation found – a fatal flaw since corrected following a review by the city Department of Investigation.

The report found there was no protocol for approving unofficial sightseeing tours.

The report found there was no protocol for approving unofficial sightseeing tours.USCG

The visiting firefighter, Johnny Beernaert, 54, died of “blunt force injuries” to the head and neck when the bow of the fishing boat rammed into the fireboat’s cabin, the report says.

The Honcho pilot spotted the FDNY boat approaching “from approximately 30 yards at a high rate of speed,” but “assumed … it would course correct.” 

The four survivors of the fireboat told investigators the crash occurred “without any indication that they were about to hit anything.”

Belgium firefighter Johnny Beernaert

Belgium firefighter Johnny Beernaert was aboard a FDNY fire boat meant for medical emergencies.Brandweer Westhoek

Beernaert could not be revived.

“He died in his wife’s arms,” said Paul Hofmann, an attorney for Beernaert’s widow, Heidi Vermandel, who accompanied him on the cruise.

“It was supposed to be the best trip of their lives. It was the greatest disaster,” he added.


Damage to the private fishing boat Honcho following its deadly 2022 crash with an FDNY fireboat.USCG

 “It caused huge disruption and pain to a lovely family.” 

Beernaert, a sergeant in the Belgium army and father of 20-year-old twins, had planned to retire in a year but continue working as a firefighter, paramedic and rescue diver.

Vermandel is suing both NYC and New York City Boat Tours in Brooklyn federal court.

Firefighter Thomas Waller

FDNY Firefighter Thomas Waller was piloting the fireboat at the time of the crash.Facebook Tom Waller

In court papers filed Tuesday, New York City Boat Tours indicated the Coast Guard’s bombshell findings could move the case to private mediation for possible settlement.

The tragedy occurred after retired FDNY captain Stephen Lonergan showed up at the Marine 1 pier in Manhattan at 9 p.m. and asked to take the fireboat on a cruise with visiting firefighter Johnny Beernaert and both their wives.

The Marine 1 commanding officer on duty,  who is not identified in the report, approved the “impromptu excursion,” the report says – apparently without consulting higher-ups.

The officer assigned firefighter Thomas Waller, also unnamed in the report, to pilot the ride alone.


The U.S. Coast Guard report provided a map showing where the fireboat and private vessel crashed. USCG

According to FDNY marine rules, the fireboat must be manned by three operators–  one officer (a lieutenant or captain) and two firefighters, including one to serve as a lookout.

Waller told investigators he “assumed” that Lonergan and the Beernaert would substitute as lookouts – a big mistake, the report says. 

FDNY Marine Bravo 1

FDNY Marine Bravo 1.USCG

Beernaert was unresponsive after the blow to his head. Lonergan tried CPR to revive him, to no avail.

He was pronounced dead at Bellevue Hospital. The others were treated for minor injuries.

The fireboat circled the Statue of Liberty, while the guests snapped photos, then headed to the Brooklyn Bridge to take more photos.

The commercial boat Honcho

The commercial boat Honcho docks out of Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn Heights.

Bright lights along the shore at nearby Brooklyn Bridge Park and “dense traffic congestion” on the waterway likely hindered Waller’s ability to see the Honcho, the report says. 

But Waller could have avoided the crash if he was traveling at a “slower speed,” it states.

The pilots of both vessels tested negative for alcohol and dangerous drugs.

Johnny Beernaert and his wife Heidi Vermandel

Johnny Beernaert and his now-widow Heidi Vermandel, who accompanied him on the cruise.FaceBook Johnny Beernaert

The Coast Guard concluded by blasting the FDNY’s routine practice of letting higher-ups or VIPs use the fire boats for pleasure cruises.  

“Sightseeing tours like the one undertaken on the night of the casualty were something that was commonly done when requested by FDNY associated persons for entertainment, without any impediment or oversight,” the report says.

The FDNY did not immediately return messages Saturday. 

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