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Fire Boat Firefighter

For actions on June 2, 1973

Gallant Ship Award Citation:

In New York Harbor, June 2, 1973, the C/V SEA WITCH rammed the SS ESSO BRUSSELS, touching off explosions and fires. New York City FIREFIGHTER, first fireboat to arrive on scene, concentrated her monitors on knocking down flames on the tanker, adrift in a sea of burning oil, when it became apparent that the bow of the SEA WITCH was embedded in the tanker amidship. The FIREFIGHTER repositioned, thrusting deeper into the burning oil. While working aft around the containership, flashing lights were seen and shouts heard from men huddled on the fantail. All pumps were shut down to permit full propulsion. The FIREFIGHTER made a port approach to the vessel and held her position as blazing containers threatened to topple and flames scorched the fireboat. Rapidly, the crew raised ladders against the burning hull. Thirty crewmen trapped aboard the SEA WITCH escaped to safety. The Master of the containership, who had suffered a heart attack, was lowered to the deck of the FIREFIGHTER. After delivering the survivors to the Disaster Unit for treatment, the fireboat returned to continue bringing the fire under control.

The courage, expertise, and teamwork of her Commanding Officer, Pilot, officers and crew while exposed to personal danger in rescuing thirty-one seaman trapped aboard a burning vessel have caused the name of the FIREFIGHTER to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship.

Fire Fighter (Hull # 856) was built at United Shipyards on Staten Island and completed in August, 1938.  Designed by noted naval architect William Francis Gibbs, Fire Fighter would become the world’s most powerful fireboat of its day.  After it was formally christened as a fireboat on August 28, 1938, Fire Fighter spent the next several months training before the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) commissioned the vessel into its fireboat fleet on November 16, 1938.

In the decades prior to the 1973 incident that earned it the Gallant Ship Award, the vessel battled fires in the waters around New York, including the fire aboard the troopship USS Lafayette (AP-53) in 1942, and the blaze aboard the ammunition-laden SS El Estero in 1943. In addition to these fires, Fire Fighter combated numerous other fires aboard ships as well as on shore during its long career.

Shortly after midnight on June 2, 1973, Fire Fighter and its ten-man crew responded to a report of a burning tanker near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the mouth of New York Harbor. Unknown to the fireboat’s crew, the fire actually involved two vessels, the U.S.-flagged containership SS C. V.Sea Witch, and the Belgium-flagged tanker, SS Esso Brussels. The fire ignited when C. V. Sea Witch, a Maritime Administration C5-S-73b type cargo vessel built in 1968 for American Export Isbrandtsen Lines, lost steering while departing New York Harbor and rammed into the tanker, which was loaded with two million cubic feet of Nigerian fuel oil, sparking the enormous blaze.

Fire Fighter was the first fireboat to arrive on scene, described by New York Fire Commissioner John T. O’Hagan as “a mountain of fire ten stories high and three thousand yards long.” The fireboat’s crew immediately opened up all of its eight monitors to fight the fire on the tanker. Only after some of the flames were contained did the crew notice the bow of the containership embedded in the tanker.

While attempting to douse the fires on both vessels, Fire Fighter’s crew sighted lights from a flashlight shining through the smoke and heard shouting coming from the C. V. Sea Witch’s fantail. The fireboat’s commanding officer ordered the monitors turned off to give the vessel full power and better steering control (the vessel could not simultaneously provide full pumping power and propulsion). Amidst the raging flames, and with the ever-present danger of explosion, Fire Fightermaneuvered alongside the burning containership so the crew could deploy two ladders and then quickly evacuated 31 crewmembers, including the body of the captain who had died of a heart attack after the collision. The fireboat’s crew  provided first aid to the survivors while the vessel ferried them to the Disaster Unit at the 69th Street Pier in Brooklyn. After unloading the survivors and the captain’s body, Fire Fighter returned to the scene until it was relieved late that morning.

In addition to Fire Fighter receiving the Gallant Ship Award, the vessel’s commanding officer, Lieutenant James F. McKenna, received the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal. The ship also received the 1974 American Merchant Marine Seamanship Trophy.

Fire Fighter continued to serve until 2010; however, before retiring, it responded to several more notable events, such as providing critically needed water to the firefighting units at the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and responding to the ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. In 2010, the FDNY placed the vessel in reserve status, and in October 2012 transferred it to the Fireboat Fire Fighter Museum. In February 2013 the vessel became a museum ship now located in Greenport, New York.

Updated: Monday, October 29, 2018