STILL FIGHTIING FIRES AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Monday, August 09, 2004

By Don Sutherland

How much water has flowed under the bridge since 1938? Well, for starters, the bridge itself - in this case, the Verrazano-Narrows - wasn't even built yet. We had no PCs, no CDs, no LPs, not even TVs in 1938. Manhattan's shore ended at West Street, which bristled with steamboats and their docks. Hundreds of daily arrivals brought people and cars and horse-drawn wagons across the North River, from the Garden State and the terminals of powerful railroads. Containerization, like cartridgization and cassetization, were yet to be thought of, and so were containerports. So was the strip of the Kill known as gasoline alley, and events it would sponsor - the Exxon/Mobil blast a year and a half ago, say, or the collision between containership Sea Witch and tanker Esso Brussels in 1973, whose fire literally scorched the bridge that had finally been built.

1938 was so long ago that New York still built ships then, as it had since 1611, some of the finest ever. One of them slid down the ways of United Shipyards, at Staten Island, on the 26th of August that year. She's seen plenty of water flow under that bridge, from her dock in its shadow. Her name's Fire Fighter but her friends just call her the Fighter and, age 66 this month, she's been on active duty longer than any other boat in the port of New York. How much time has passed since 1938?

Enough for a man to be born, raised, schooled, employed, and retired, if he lived long enough. If a fireman's career spans twenty years, Fire Fighter's started on its fourth generation of firemen. Most of the gents who work her today have only tenuous connections to the gents who worked her first big one, the thirteen-hour three-alarmer aboard the freighter Silver Ash, in January 1939. Across the years, ideas persist nonetheless - they're just expressed differently. Where one generation might naturally say, for example, that Fire Fighter is "a Cadillac," another might say she's "a Rolls-Royce." She's neither, of course, because both makes of cars come from assembly lines. Fire Fighter was made by hand, the only one. "She was called 'Fiorello's Folly," four or five of the gents will tell you independently, at different times, "he was a firefighting buff." "She cost almost a million in 1938," they'll also tell you, the official figure quoted as $982,574.85. Another three or four will recount, "she was built for the Navy" or at least "by a famous Naval architect," which also is true, (William Gibbs went on to design the Atlantic liners United States, and America). All will concur that over the years, the port of New York and the city that owns her has gotten a great ROI.

Not that her times have always been flush, nor immune to diverse city priorities. For take a look now - where are the piers today? A firetruck's expensive, but a fireboat's moreso. Are the city's mothers and children imperiled out on the bulkhead?

Or down some long hallway in a five-story walkup? With fire houses all over the place closing down, where does a big fireboat fit in? A few more guys will tell you their Caddy, their Rolls, went eight years before her last shave and haircut. How much time since 1938? More than enough for the World Trade Center to go up, and come down. A lot of things changed after that. A big fireboat takes on new meaning. Everyone knew it was true on the twenty-first of February last year.

Down Below Orange

Out of nowhere, a thick black column rose high above southwestern Staten Island , and everyone asked - terrorists? The answer was given just as quickly - no, "only an accident," down at Port Mobil. "A big chunk of the barge was blown out of the water," one of the gents will tell you, "do you know what could happen if it landed on the pipes?" Depends on which pipes he means, we suppose - there are so many in the vicinity. "Only" an accident. More than that to the two guys who died, and their significant others. But except for the settlements, it stopped there for everyone else. It was not, it turns out, an act of war.

What was on everyone's mind a year ago last February is more on their minds today. Everyone's been working on the mandated emergency plans. You don't need World War Three to need fireboats. Marine 9, Fire Fighter's unit, responded to Port Mobil, along with Governor Alfred E. Smith and John D. McKean, FDNY's rapid response boat Kevin C. Kane, the Coast Guard tug Hawser and cutter Hammerhead, plus launches of the NYPD, Coast Guard, and New Jersey State Police all arrived, all beneath the fluttering bass of a Coast Guard helicopter. There were private vessels aplenty too, of course, one of the Roehrig tugs moving a second barge out of harm's way.

Conoco's tug Empire State joined the McKean in cooling the second barge, after thermal imaging detected a hotspot. In case anything needed lifting, the Bergen Point, a small tug with a big crane from Ken's Marine, stood by. The order of the day was putting-out fires, and preventing new ones too. Fire Fighter, having knocked down much of the fire, directed her monitors against buildups on the Arthur Kill surface.

It would all have been quite inspirational, had it been a drill. What a range of equipment showed up, from public and private sectors, and how ready their people for action. And had they not proved so successful at containing Port Mobil, there was plenty of backup - quite a range of shipdocking tugs with firefighting gear which tie-up not far away. One might argue that the waterways of New York are better-protected than the streets. But there's all kinds of protection, and sometimes just sitting there, pumping is not quite enough. Something had to get through the fire after the Sea Witch ignited, with enough deck space to safely remove thirty-one people. For that, Fire Fighter was given the Gallant Ship award. And a fireboat is more than its monitors and hose connections, and an expansive deck. Belowdecks is her reason for being, machinery that sucks water in and kicks it back out. One thing that hasn't changed since 1938 is, 20,000 gallons per minute is a lot of water to pump, and Fire Fighter pumps it.

Fireboat Working Inland

Three years after Fire Fighter's launching, according to NYFD Battalion Chief William Siegel, a group of New York officials "went to London during the blitz. They observed British firefighters using water pumped from the river, after the Luftwaffe's bombs had broken the mains." But a major pumping operation takes a fair staging area, and metro New York is all island and peninsula. The idea of fireboats at work on inland fires is "well entrenched in our history," Chief Siegel tells us, as the Marine division then gave a demonstration, pumping water from the East River across 14th Street to the North River. The benefits accrue to any waterfront structure, as the typical hydrant down by the shore, at the end of the pipe, gives but scant pressure. Or none at all, anywhere nearby, when skyscrapers crash down. On the one day that happened, and for a couple weeks following, the town got more ROI from its fireboats.

"You have 65,000 commuters every day on the Staten Island ferry," Chief Siegel reminds us, "and fifteen-hundred new cars, and eight-thousand containers coming under the Verrazano Bridge." The cruise ships, bound for Bayonne as well as Manhattan, contribute $15-million per week to the local economy, Chief Siegel mentions, on their way past bunkering and lightering of petroleum products on the Narrows and Upper Bay. You don't need World War III to need fireboats. The proof of it is, when they first ordered Fire Fighter, not even World War II had been thought of yet. But people think differently just now. "We've identified the problems on the waterfront and the potentials," Chief Siegel told us, "and we've changed our thinking since a few years ago. It once was our intention to replace the existing fleet - " there were ten altogether in 1938, of which Fire Fighter remains the largest and most powerful "- with 75-ft boats, but we decided we really needed a big boat with a lot of area, one that could take abuse, say, outside the harbor."

Fire Fighter Underway

The names and locations of the Fighter's companies have changed over the years, Marine 9 being their present designation and the "homeport" at Stapleton their base. From here theirs is a clear panorama, beginning with the Verrazano Bridge on the right and Coney Island beyond it, to Bay Ridge ahead, Buttermilk Channel and Governor's Island, and the Upper Bay, Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, the ferry terminals at Whitehall and St. George, the mouth of the Kill Van Kull, all part of the scenery. A sentinel and guardian should have a good view, and the Fighter has a grand one. It's widely believed the company will be moving, as the woebegotten "homeport" is remodeled. A berth back at the St. George ferry terminal seems in the cards, that structure itself newly rebuilt. Chief Siegel likes that spot better. If the ferry is under her protection, what better place for the Fighter? Plus, it's a mile closer to "gasoline alley." Marine 9 includes one Captain, three Lieutenants, four Pilots, four Chief Marine Engineers, five Assistant Marine Engineers, four Wipers, and officially, nine Firefighters.

As a matter of fact,.all aboard are firefighters, who applied and lucked-out and got the marine assignment, and learned how to run a boat. Only a few arrive with a maritime background, although Chief Siegel himself holds a hundred-ton ticket, and one of the Assistant Engineers, a fourth-generation firefighter, not long ago graduated at Fort Schuyler. Not the whole company goes out on each cruise, of course - the standing crew is an officer, pilot, Chief and Assistant engineers, a wiper, and two firefighters. An engineer and pilot are aboard 24x7. Their quarters are spare but commodious, the hull's frames for decoration. Compared to a tugboat, which from the gunwales upward she somewhat resembles, everything about the Fighter seems spacious. The decks are broad, and mostly flat, as a high pushing prow was probably not an imperative. The engine room is certainly full, but walkways are ample - a thought to be taken with some gratitude, as the Fighter is, as a few gents will tell you, "an electric boat." Diesel-electric, that is, with twin 1500 hp Winton/Cleveland V-16s, driving various generators and powering the two Westinghouse propulsion motors, 1000 hp each. She's rated according to her diesels, another gent will tell you, so she's officially a 3000hp vessel. No matter how rated, Fire Fighter would have been powerful as a tug, back in 1938. She had twin screws, when most tugs still had one. Her bottom is flat compared to most tugs, and draws about nine feet. That's not deep for a hull 134 feet long and 32 wide, stuffed with motors and shafts and pumps. She's a handsome boat in an austere way, with her straight up-and-downs and her straight back-and-forths. Not much of a rake to be found here. She moves with authority too, more cutting the water than pushing it, not much of a bow wake at all. She seems to be moving slowly, deliberately, as though on patrol.

The impression of near-motionless prevails aboard, at times. This was something we noted one day when we went from the dock straight to the crew's quarters, there for a talk with an engineer. Fifteen minutes later, back on deck, we were surprised to find ourself midway across the Upper Bay. We hadn't known we'd left the dock, nor that we were moving. We might have known. On an earlier day, our second aboard, we thought we'd give the old Fighter a challenge. For obviously, we were sure, she's being kept at low speed for good reason. When you're pushing sixty-six, you are forgiven a rattle or a shake here and there, if you're a machine. So somewhere out on open water, we asked a pilot what she'd be like opened-up? He gave us a double-take. We were at 12 knots already, he reported. Fire Fighter is heavy and broad, for her intended role, mostly, is a platform for pumps and their connected appliances. Battleship stability helps a lot, for battleship-like reasons when the deck monitors get going. In the engine room you wear ear protectors, and near the fantail you get a definite since of something turning beneath. But in the wheelhouse, noise and vibration are almost nonexistent.

As much as has changed since 1938, a few traits of the Fighter come-off, inevitably, quaint. The telephone hanging in the wheelhouse look like something Humphrey Bogart would have used, if Sam Spade had joined the department. And there's the telegraph. Fire Fighter is a bell boat with two big brass stations in the house, their counterparts in the engine room. The house rings down, and the engine room rings back, dials swiveling and bells gonging. Charming and historic? Maybe that too, though one of the gents might add that it's simply how people communicate on this boat. Since 1938, besides the exact nature of wheelhouse control, a few other things in boats have evolved. Propulsion systems are among them, with gains in maneuverability. A design for a new 130-foot fireboat has been approved, and bids have been sought. It was thought they would be returned shortly before this is published. Chief Siegel expects the new boat to arrive around 2007. One is saying what Fire Fighter's disposition would be after the new "superboat's" arrival, but the talk generally frames it as a replacement. Still, won't 20,000 GPM continue to be a lot of water? Ask again in 2008. Fire Fighter should be up to the job when she's 70, because that, among other things, is what she was built to be.

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