These FDNY Fireboats Rescued Thousands In Lower Manhattan On 9/11

May 4, 2020Matt Fratus
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Three Forty Three FDNY Fireboat

At 8:45 AM on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, an American Airlines Boeing 767 airplane smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The crew of FDNY Marine 1, who operated the John D. McKean — a fireboat named after a fallen firefighter killed after suffering burns in a live steam explosion in 1953 — were drinking coffee and talking amongst themselves. They heard a loud noise that they thought was from an explosion at a nearby construction site. Pilot Jim Campenelli’s radio came to life as it called for a second alarm to the World Trade Center as fire and smoke billowed out of the tower. 

He parked the McKean just off the sea wall on Liberty Street where he issued orders to his crew to “assemble all the tools, spare masks, and cylinders.” They expected to be the staging area for other fireboats en route. 

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A fireboat renders a water salute as the Harpers Ferry-Class amphibious dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) pulls into New York City. Oak Hill is participating in Veterans Week New York City 2018 to honor the service of all our nation’s veterans. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Trey Hutcheson/U.S. Navy/Released.

As the second plane roared in from the distance, they watched it impact just 18 minutes later, and every first responder in the city realized it was not an accident. Lower Manhattan was put on lockdown, all transportation methods were halted, and municipal agencies worked diligently to ensure nobody could enter or leave the city.

“When the towers came down, the water mains in Lower Manhattan around the area of the towers was all destroyed,” said Henry Wassmer, a tour guide on the Fireboat Fire Fighter, which later became a floating museum in New York City. “There was no water through the regular water system, so they called all the fireboats and they pumped water ashore to the land companies so they could battle the fires.” The Fire Fighter had the capacity to pump 20,000 gallons of water per minute.

The John J. Harvey, a small fireboat built in 1931, is said to have the capacity and power of 20 fire trucks. “She’s the first large, modern fireboat built in America in that everything before her was steam,” Huntley Gill, an owner of the Harvey, told CBS News “Sunday Morning” senior correspondent Rita Braver. For three days straight, the Harvey used an endless supply of water from the Hudson River to pump 38 million gallons into the city. The fireboats that hadn’t connected their hoses to supply lines were also used in evacuation efforts.

“It was like the floodgates have opened,” said Tim Ivory, a mechanic that worked on Harvey.  “People poured onto the boat. We started heading north. As we’re going north, this guy in the fire department sees this fireboat going by and says, ‘We need them!'”

The fireboats were a part of a larger boatlift operation with an estimated 150 vessels from tug boats and ferries to the U.S. Coast Guard and New York Police Department boats. Hundreds of mariners on the water that day selflessly joined the response to evacuate nearly 500,000 people. The terrorist attacks disoriented many on land, and some had even jumped into the Hudson and had to be rescued from the current that swept them away. “We had like Noah’s Ark,” said NYPD Officer Tyrone Powell, one of the crew members of an NYPD police boat. “We had everybody on that boat. We had animals. We had babies without parents. Everybody was covered in soot.” 

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Tauba Auerbach, Flow Separation, 2018. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund and 14 18 NOW and presented on the Fireboat John J. Harvey in New York Harbor July 1, 2018 – May 12 -2019. Photo courtesy Nicholas Knight/Public Art Fund

The McKean transported 200 to 250 injured, scared, and panicked people across the river to Jersey City and made multiple trips throughout the day. Medical assistance awaited on shore as they arrived nearly 10 minutes later. When they looked back over the water, they watched in horror as the second tower collapsed and gray smoke engulfed the city’s view. The McKean and other fireboats remained in support for nearly two weeks.

The fireboats of the New York City Fire Department proved they could respond to a disaster that no one had planned for. Since their rich history dates back to 1875, the problems first suggested by the Metropolitan Board of Fire Commissioners in 1866 continue to stress the importance for a “floating engine to fight fires on and along the river fronts.” 

Eight years after the terrorist attacks, the Three Forty Three (343) fireboat entered service. Named to honor the 343 firefighters killed on 9/11, the $27 million red and white fireboat can pump 50,000 gallons of water per minute. It also has 11 remote-controlled water cannons, a 55-foot hook and ladder, a deployable speedboat, and a separate decontamination area — all the tools for modern day firefighting.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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