Fire Fighter’s Background:
It’s safe to say that New York Harbor in the 1930’s was a much different place than it is today. Ringed on all edges by cargo piers, bulk goods terminals and shipyards instead of parks and high-priced condominiums, the entire harbor was alive as ships of every description plied their trades. Pier fires, ship collisions and other maritime mishaps were an all too routine occurrence across the 267-mile waterfront during its history, and by 1937 the New York City Fire Department was operating a fleet of nine Fireboats dispersed across the City to protect the expansive harbor. Though the FDNY fleet was more than capable of handling any peacetime fire with a combined 75,000 gallon-per-minute pumping capacity, the looming war in Europe and likelihood that New York would once again be a major supply port for friendly nations highlighted the need for a modern and more powerful fireboat to protect the harbor.Seizing the opportunity to fuse two of his interests into one project, noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs approached Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia with an ambitious design proposal for a revolutionary fireboat with an unrivalled pumping capacity and the first diesel-electric propulsion system ever mounted in a FDNY fireboat. Seeing the potential of the vessel and eager to stimulate the New York City economy during the waning years of the Great Depression, Mayor LaGuardia eagerly approved Gibbs’ proposal and in the fall of 1937 the keel of Hull #856 was laid at United Shipyards on Staten Island. Built of riveted steel and measuring 134ft long with a 32ft beam housing a pair of General Motors 1500hp 16-cylinder 3968 CID Winton Diesel Engines, the vessel taking shape on the ways was by far the world’s most powerful fireboat; with four DeLaval two-stage centrifugal pumps driven by four Westinghouse Marine DC 600hp motors capable of delivering up to 20,000 gallons per minute of water to the nine topside fire monitors and hose manifolds. With construction wrapping up on Hull #856 in the late summer of 1938, the vessel was formally Christened as the Fire Fighter by Miss Eleanore Grace Flanagan, the daughter of a fireboat officer, on August 28th, 1938 and slid down the ways into Newark Bay. Heralded as a utilitarian vessel by Mayor LaGuardia, the name Fire Fighter was intended to honor the men of the FDNY, and not a Mayor of New York City as was the tradition with previous FDNY fireboats. Spending much of her first month of operation engaged in extensive training to familiarize her crews with her substantial capabilities, the Fire Fighter officially entered FDNY service at 0900hrs on November 16th, 1938 with Engine 57 at Pier 1 in the Battery.
Service History – 1938-1967
Not having to wait long before being called to duty, Fire Fighter responded to her first call on November 19th when she was tasked with securing a runaway oil barge drifting down the Hudson River. Dispatched to her first working vessel fire on January 23rd, 1939, the Fire Fighter came alongside the rubber-laden British-flagged freighter SS Silver Ash at her Brooklyn pier and spent over 13 hours engaged in fighting the well-fueled cargo hold fire in below-freezing conditions before she and her crew were able to extinguish the flames. Returning to Pier 1 victorious over her first fire, the Fighter and her crew resumed their station at Manhattan’s Southern tip where they spent the balance of the year guarding over harbor traffic with the exception of a “deployment” to the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. Serving as both a fire protection asset and an exhibit of her modern and revolutionary design and capabilities, the Fire Fighter was a heavily-visited attraction during the fair’s 1939 season, making her something of a celebrity among the people of New York and the world by the time she returned to her frontline duty in August 1939. The light atmosphere was not to be long-lived however, as less than a month after leaving her fair duty the Second World War began in Europe, bringing with it the grim reasoning behind the Fighter’s powerful firefighting capability. Though the United States would remain officially neutral for the next two years, New York Harbor was soon busy with cargo ships carrying supplies of all kinds to Europe, and along the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island shorelines long-dormant shipyards were once again humming with activity as the United States ramped up the production of warships. Keeping an ever watchful eye over the nonstop activity, Fire Fighter and her marine division comrades soon found themselves protecting a major war material supply port which was now lying on the front lines in the Battle of the Atlantic.
With the presence of so many ammunition-laden cargo vessels, fuel-laden tankers and cargo-laden transports crowding the harbor with warships of every description all but guaranteeing a major open-water mishap, the majority of the Fighter’s wartime fire calls instead came from vessels in distress while pierside. With the risk of fire aboard a general cargo ship or in a pier shed already high for litany of reasons prior to the war, the subsequent demand for raw materials in Europe meant that most breakbulk freighters and pier houses were loaded and often times overloaded with multiple types of cargo, most of which did not “get along” or even worse provided a fuel source in the event of fire. As a result, time and again along the wartime waterfront small fires that would have otherwise been contained quickly grew into raging infernos that claimed ships, property and lives.
Such was the case in August of 1941, when the Fighter was dispatched to fight a catastrophic and multiple-fatality fire aboard the freighter SS Panuco at Brooklyn’s Pier 27 at the foot of Warren Street. Months later, a surprising call came from Pier 88 on Manhattan’s West Side on the 9th of February, 1942. Finding the troopship USS Lafayette (AP-53), formerly the Ocean Liner SS Normandie, engulfed in huge flames from stem to stern, Fire Fighter joined almost every fireboat in the FDNY fleet in battling the blaze and unleashed her full pumping capacity to extinguish the numerous fires burning on the enormous ship.
Successful to a fault, Fire Fighter certainly contributed her share to the huge volume of water pumped aboard the burning liner which eventually caused it to capsize, nearly crushing the Fire Fighter beneath her as she suddenly began parting her mooring lines and rolling onto her Port side. Called upon slightly over a year later to battle yet another major vessel fire, the Fighter was dispatched on April 26th, 1943 with the fireboat John J Harvey the Caven Point Army Terminal pier where a fire had broken out aboard the fully-loaded freighter SS El Estero. Arriving onscene to news that the ship was carrying a mixed load of explosives weighing some 5,000 tons, Fire Fighter’s crew ignored the clear and imminent danger posed by the detonation of the ship’s cargo and immediately set about drowning her flaming cargo with huge amounts of sea water. Using her stern-mounted tower monitor to its designed purpose of reaching over vessel bulwarks and into cargo holds, Fire Fighter eventually succeeded in pulling the burning ship off the pier and onto Robbins Reef, where she and the Harvey used their combined 38,000gpm pumping capacity to sink the El Estero in shallow water, thus ending what is perceived to have been the single greatest threat to New York Harbor during the entire Second World War.
Shifting her station assignment out of Manhattan in the years following the Second World War as the majority of merchant shipping lines moved to the Brooklyn waterfront, Fire Fighter was reassigned to Engine 223 and took up residence at the Bush Terminal where she would remain through 1967. Huge changes in the nature of merchant shipping during this time kept the Fire Fighter and her crews every bit as busy as they were during the war years, as the increase in the number of tankers calling New York Harbor began to climb along with the spike in postwar US Merchant Marine shipping to support the rebuilding effort in both Europe and Asia. Though she was involved with several shipboard fires and marine incidents during this period in the open harbor, increasing marine safety standards for vessel operators and decreasing maintenance on pier facilities meant that the majority of Fire Fighter’s calls came from sites along the New York Harbor shoreline.
Battling major pier fires in 1946, 1947, 1956 and 1964, Fire Fighter’s crew became well-drilled to the process of “deconstructing” the large, wooden pier houses which were often packed to the rafters with cargo of all varieties; either by using her bow-mounted 5-inch monitor to physically batter down the structure or by using her powerful onboard air compressor and jackhammers to create fire breaks in pier floors. With these types of fires on the rise through the 1950’s and culminating with the massive explosion at the December 3rd, 1956 Lukenbach Steamship 35th Street Pier that badly damaged the Fire Fighter and wounded most of her crew along with several hundred civilians, both the City of New York and the Fire Department began to crack down on pier operators to ensure proper fire prevention apparatus was in place. These new regulations and their requisite costs came at a dire time for most steamship lines that were already operating at razor-thin profits due to foreign competition and the rise of containerization among cargo shippers, and during the 1960’s many began to merge, shut down or move to less expensive ports.
Service History – 1967-2001
This sea change in the nature of commercial shipping brought the Fire Fighter out of Brooklyn and to a new berth at Staten Island’s recently-constructed Homeport facility in 1967, where she took the strategically vital place at the entrance to New York Harbor. Though she was pushing 30 years old and was the second oldest boat in the fleet which had been largely renewed in the late 1950’s, the Fighter was still the most powerful FDNY fireboat, and as such she kept watch over the increasingly large and more numerous numbers of Containerships and Oil Tankers calling the Port of New York and New Jersey, many of which would anchor in front of her berth as they lightered their cargo onto smaller ships. Such was the case for the Belgian-flagged Oil Tanker SS Esso Brussels which had dropped anchor in the Verrazano anchorage and was lightering her full load of oil when the Containership SS Sea Witch allided with her after losing her steering shortly after midnight on June 2nd, 1973. Bathed in the light from the enormous fireball that resulted from the impact and the enormous fire that soon enveloped the two ships, Fire Fighter’s ready crew immediately responded to the nearby inferno, which at the time was sending flames high enough into the sky to scorch the steel on the Verrazano Bridge. Battling the huge flames with every monitor aboard ship, Fire Fighter’s crew chased the two ships into New York Bay as they drifted on the outbound tide, all the time thinking the Esso Brussels was the sole vessel involved in the event. Only when the two vessels grounded in Gravesend Bay did the hull of the Sea Witch appear through the flames, and with it the blinkning flashlight of a Sandy Hook Pilot as he desparately signaled the Fighter’s pilot for assistance. Wasting no time, Fire Fighter’s bow monitor cut a path though the burning-oil covered water to the Sea Witch and her crew quickly sent up ladders that allowed the 28 surviving crew and harbor pilot to be safely removed from the vessel. For her and her crew’s efforts, Fire Fighter was awarded the 1974 American Merchant Marine Seamanship Trophy and the Department of Commerce Gallant Ship Award, the highest honor that can be accorded a merchant vessel, both of which noted her crew’s extraordinary seamanship and heroism during the rescue. To date, she is the only fireboat to have received either of these awards.
Fire Fighter resumed her regular operations following the Sea Witch/Esso Brussels collision, playing a starring role in the 1976 Bicentennial Tall Ship Parade, fighting stubborn fires in the Kill Van Kull and at an oil tank farm in Bayonne in the 1980’s and assisting once again with shoreside operations as needed along the increasingly residential New York Harbor waterfront. Celebrating her 50th year on duty with applications for listing on both the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Landmark, Fire Fighter duly received both on June 30th, 1989, a well earned recognition for a vessel which had contributed so much to New York Harbor over her career. Fire Fighter’s work however, was nowhere near complete. By 1990 Fire Fighter was one of only four large FDNY Fireboats in frontline service and was still the ranking powerhouse of the fleet, and though she was getting on in years the Fire Department seemed to have no inclination of replacing her since she was still more than capable of providing her service in her almost-unaltered 1938 state. Becoming the Queen of the Fleet in 1999 following the decommissioning of the John J. Harvey, Fire Fighter entered the new millennium still in frontline service and based at Homeport, where she sat on the morning of September 11th, 2001.
Service History – 2001-2010
Responding immediately to the sight of the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center, Fire Fighter joined the entire FDNY Marine Unit at the Battery where her crew initially made the boat ready to provide hoses and a staging area for FDNY operations battling what seemed to be a terrible accident. The impact on the South Tower at 0903hrs and the subsequent collapse of the World Trade Center changed everything, and like her fellow fireboats the Fire Fighter and her crew spent the next three days pumping at full capacity through her deck manifolds to supply water for firefighting efforts at Ground Zero. Literally worn out by her marathon pumping duty, the Fire Fighter was ordered into the shipyard for a much-needed overhaul and full inspection. Found to be fit for several more years of service despite her advancing age, the clear need for modern counter-terrorism capabilities among New York City’s emergency responder apparatus brought about design requirements that Francis Gibbs could not have foresaw; particularly the capability to operate in areas exposed to chemical, biological and nuclear contaminants. With retrofitting the ageing vessel proving to be cost-prohibitive, the daunting and nearly decade-long task of designing and building a suitable replacement for the Fire Fighter began. Despite her frontline service days clearly being numbered, Fire Fighter still maintained her watch over the Verrazano Narrows and kept up a busy schedule of calls in her last decade on duty. Fighting her last major vessel fire on February 21st, 2003 following the explosion of a fully-loaded gasoline barge at Port Mobile, New York, Fire Fighter also played major roles in the emergency response to the October 2003 Staten Island Ferry Disaster and the ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009. Attending her final “Blessing of the Fleet” ceremony on July 17th, 2010, Fire Fighter’s 72-year FDNY career came to an end shortly after the November arrival of her replacement, appropriately named Fire Fighter II.
2010 to Present
Placed immediately into reserve at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Fire Fighter remained in the custody of the City of New York for two years before she was finally transferred to our museum in October of 2012. As the third-oldest fireboat in the United States and fifth oldest fireboat in the World, the Fire Fighter is unique in the fact that she remains largely unchanged from the date of her launch, her forward-thinking design more than able to keep pace with seven-plus decades of technological advancement. As a National Landmark and the most award-decorated Fireboat in the world, Fire Fighter has earned her place as museum ship and a monument to those who served aboard her and continue to serve today.