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...


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Winderl carefully assessed the position the fireboat was in, swung the wheel to starboard and eased astern slowly. Attempting to avoid the Empress Bay's still-spinning propeller, the Gaynor drifted around just too late; a 16-inch hole was punctured in the hull just below the water line. Immediately, the 136-foot fireboat John Purroy Mitchell took over as the Gaynor slowly maneuvered to a vacant pier where Engine Company 7 and members of the Supervising Engineers applied suction to the incoming water, thereby preventing the Gaynor from sinking.

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Official FDNY photo
The Swedish freighter Nebraska (left) in a shipyard after the collision.

The changing tide in this narrow area of the East River hindered the entire procedure. Land units were assigned to draft water from the river to break up the patches of flaming gasoline still floating with the tide. Engine Companies 7 and 12 were positioned where they could best put out any fire the floating gasoline threatened to ignite. Some glows could be seen all along both sides of the East River.

Upon the arrival of the fire department relief launch, Battalion Chief Roald Olson of the 25th Battalion observed a body in the burning water. He quickly removed his outer coat and dove overboard, then held his victim afloat until the launch maneuvered to receive them. (He later received two awards for that feat.) The victim was a member of the Nebraska's crew and in bad shape.

Many people and agencies were involved in this catastrophe in some way. Above on the Manhattan Bridge Engine Company 9 was dispatched to extinguish the flames that had reached the underpinning of the train tracks and ignited the grease. The bridge was closed. Early-morning traffic was at a standstill. Motorists honked their horns impatiently, not knowing what was going on below them in the river. Fire engines with their clarion calls arrived from both directions to the scene as police tried to clear a passage for them.

In the meantime, the 300,000 gallons of gasoline that had been spilled spread everywhere. The outgoing tide was floating the gasoline under piers where factories operated and around lumberyards where neatly stacked piles of lumber stood. The U.S. Coast Guard closed the East River to traffic although all types of vessels were tied up in the path of the gasoline. Highway traffic on the Manhattan side of the river Drive was backed up for miles. Motorists heard loudspeakers from fireboats and police launches repeatedly warning them that smoking was banned there was the possibility that the heavy fumes would re-ignite and cause more problems along the crowded apartment complexes lining the East River waterfront, which also included the mayor's official residence, Gracie Mansion.

Even after the blaze aboard the two vessels was brought under control, pockets of fire continued to flow with the tide. The Coast Guard sent some of its vessels to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in case an emergency erupted there.

FDNY Chief of Department Alfred Mendy was quite concerned, noting that more than 40 miles of the city's waterfront was endangered. The Transit Authority had shut down power on the Manhattan Bridge anticipating the fire department's extinguishment of the burning grease on the railroad tracks. In addition, a few rails had been twisted by the heat and had to be replaced. The power company planned to repair the burned conduits and high-tension wires as soon as possible so that the trains could resume normal operations. The Coast Guard had previously dispatched 13 vessels to assist the FDNY's six fireboats to battle the flames and also to patrol the river.

One of the crew members on the Nebraska, Lars E. Brattstrom, a 17-year-old marine cadet, remembers that night well. He was enjoying the silhouette of the New York skyline when the accident occurred. The Neb-raska was under the Manhattan Bridge when he saw the "little tanker." Almost immediately, a flame lit up the sky, accompanied by an ear-splitting explosion. Bratt-strom ran to the stern, where 20 of the crew were still asleep. He got them out of their bunks as the first mate rushed in and ordered them to abandon ship quickly. They shut the hatches behind them, hurriedly donning lifebelts as they ran.

Intense heat had begun to crack and break the porthole glass. By that time, the freighter was a raging inferno. Dressed in nightclothes, the crew rushed out on deck. A tugboat pulled alongside and took most of the crew to a waiting ambulance. Inspection of the ship later revealed that stored on the Nebraska were numerous drums of gasoline and a large cargo of nitrocellulose, a highly flammable substance. The quick response of the FDNY Marine Division prevented the spread of fire to the holds on the Nebraska.