Baptism Of Fire

Lawrence Principato gives his first-person account of a 1958 fire in New York's East River.


Editor's note: Ship collisions and fires at sea are terrors of seafarers and firefighters alike. When both occur at the same time, that's double jeopardy. And that's what happened in New York City on June 26, 1958, when a Swedish freighter collided with a gasoline tanker beneath the Manhattan...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Editor's note: Ship collisions and fires at sea are terrors of seafarers and firefighters alike. When both occur at the same time, that's double jeopardy. And that's what happened in New York City on June 26, 1958, when a Swedish freighter collided with a gasoline tanker beneath the Manhattan Bridge, an East River crossing that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn. Immediately, a flaming slick spread with the incoming tide in the path of a major roadway, docks, ships, factories and lumberyards. The author, a retired fireboat master, was a probationary firefighter when he responded to that emergency. Here's his first-person account.

A loud explosion broke the stillness of the warm night. It was early morning when Brooklyn box 125 was transmitted. The pilot, Otto Winderl, already gave the signal on the ship's whistle that the fireboat William J. Gaynor a 132-foot steamboat was responding to an emergency.

8_96_baptism1.jpg
Official FDNY photo
The gasoline tanker Empress Bay sinks in the East River it colliding with the Swedish freighter Nebraska on June 26, 1958. Brooklyn is in the background.

Everyone scrambled; the firehouse became alive with activity. Captain Eugene Kenny tapped the fireboat out. Within three minutes after the initial transmission, we were in the middle of the river, where two vessels the Swedish freighter Nebraska and the gasoline tanker Empress Bay were engulfed in flames.

As we approached, deck pipes whistled as the trapped air was replaced with extremely high water pressure. Despite the cascading water spray, the black smoke and the flames, the name Nebraska was clearly visible just above the water line of the freighter. As we swung around to assess the situation, we could see that the bow of the Nebraska had sliced into the tanker mid-ships. Acrid gasoline fumes and the hot flames couldn't obliterate the tanker's name: Empress Bay, out of Bayway, NJ. And we were close, close enough to hear the East River gurgling into the sinking tanker. Captain Anton Hagastad and his entire crew, with the exception of Engineer Tom Erickson and the tanker's cook, Otto Ahrens, were floating around in the water somewhere.

When we drew closer, we could see fire racing across Nebraska's deck. I pointed the charged handline above the crew to shield them from the flames. Other seamen were hanging onto Jacobs ladders just above the water to escape the fire. Some of them had their clothes burned off. Winderl later commented that the burning gasoline came uncomfortably close. Even the braided rope fender on the bow was steaming. (As a probationary fireman this was all new to me.) I pointed the three-inch hoseline into the water to break up the flames in the area where two crewmen were swimming toward a 30-foot ladder hanging over the fireboat's rail.

The 437-foot Nebraska suddenly disengaged from the Empress Bay and began to sink more quickly. As Ben Messina, a fellow firefighter, descended the ladder to assist the two in the water, I thought he said, "Keep me in sight, pal." The weight of the seamen swung the ladder into the water, and Ben accidentally toppled into the water but was close enough to board the sinking tanker. He quickly slammed the watertight door and secured it to slow the flooding. It was no use. The tanker continued to go down. I hollered for him to quickly come aboard, the fireboat was beginning to move again. Just in time, the ladder floated up and I assisted him over the rail.

Although the Gaynor was still maneuvering, other members of the fireboat crew continued to wash away the burning gasoline with the high-pressure streams. We approached the port side of the Nebraska close enough so that those on the fantail could jump on top of the pilot house.

This content continues onto the next page...