The call came early on the morning of September 11, 2001. The Port Authority, trying desperately to deal with the horrific tragedy unfolding at the World Trade Center, issued an “all boats” alert asking for any and all available boats to report for ferrying duty, transporting people off the island of Manhattan to the surrounding boroughs. Hundreds of boats responded, miraculously carrying thousands of Manhattanites to safety across the Hudson.
One of the boats responding to the call was the John J. Harvey, a decommissioned fireboat that had seen over a half-century of service in the New York City Fire Department. Since her retirement in 1999, the Harvey had been purchased by a private consortium determined to restore her to her former glory. They succeeded, and on June 15, 2000, the newly restored Harvey was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. But on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, the Harvey took her place alongside the hundreds of commuter boats, ferries and private watercraft coming to the aid of the survivors.
By nightfall, she would help save thousands of lives, taking her rightful place alongside the many other heroes of that day.
A Proud History of Service
The Harvey was launched on October 6, 1931, at the Todd Shipbuilding and Drydock Corporation in Brooklyn, New York. Commissioned by the City of New York, she was named for a fireboat pilot killed in an accident the previous year. She measured 130 feet, stem to stern, with a beam of 28 feet and a draft of 9 feet. She had classic fireboat lines, with a plumb-bowed steel hull, a graceful sweeping back, and an elliptical stern, all topped by an upright pilothouse.
She carried eight deck pipes, or “water cannons:” one at the bow, two above the pilothouse, two on a platform at the front of the boat deck, and three on an aft platform. Her largest deck pipes had a capacity of 3,000 gallons per minute, and her eight cannons were capable of discharging 18,000 gallons per minute, the equivalent of 24 fire engines. Her water pressure was enough to send a continuous stream of water over the George Washington Bridge.
For 65 years after her launch, the Harvey answered the call without fail. From the Cunard Line pier fire in 1932, to the five-alarm blaze that destroyed Pier 54 on February 9, 1942, to the collision of the Alva Cape and Texaco Massachusetts oil tankers in 1966, the Harvey was an integral part of the New York City Fire Department’s water and shore response team.
A Trip To The Museum
By the early 1990’s, however, the Harvey was showing her age. Her sixty-five years of active service had taken its toll, and advances in fire-fighting technology had reduced the need for big fireboats like the Harvey. Choosing to rely instead on newer fire engines, and two smaller fireboats, the New York City Fire Department decommissioned the Harvey in 1994, and put her up for auction in 1999.
Originally headed for the scrap heap, the Harvey was rescued by a group of businessmen who wanted to restore her for historical purposes. Two hundred thousand dollars and one year of restorations later, she was designated a National Historical Landmark, and became a floating museum, taking tourists on boat rides around Manhattan.
September 11, 2001
When the “all boats” call went out the morning of September 11, the Harvey’s owners called the Fire Department to see if they could be of service. The answer was a resounding “yes,” and a few minutes later she pulled up at the seawall at Pier A south of the World Financial Center, to take on her first load of 150 passengers.
No sooner was the Harvey headed for Staten Island than she got another call from the Fire Department. She was asked to discharge her passengers as quickly as possible, and then return downtown to help pump water. The Harvey, it seems, had suddenly become one of the most important ships on the river.
The force of the explosions at the World Trade Center had ruptured virtually every water main in downtown Manhattan, leaving firefighters with no water, and no way to fight the fires raging in the buildings left standing in World Trade Plaza. Since the Fire Department had only two under-sized fireboats, and its fire engines were worthless, the Harvey was now an answer to a fireman’s prayer.
Pulling up to the seawall in North River, the closest proximity possible to the World Trade Center, the Harvey set up alongside the Fire Department’s other two fireboats to begin her work. Fire hoses were quickly run from the Harvey to the World Trade Center, and the firefighters were able to put down the remaining fires, saving everything but World Trade Center 7, which collapsed later that day.
The Harvey worked non-stop until Friday night, September 14, when water service to the City’s fire hydrants was restored.
In appreciation for her service on 9/11, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Harvey a special Preservation Honor Award. In 2002, she was immortalized in a children's book, "Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey." She now remains open to visitors and tourists at Pier 63.