Baptism Of Fire

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.

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.

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.

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.

Captain Oscar F. Olsson, skipper of the Nebraska, was devastated. He had no idea how this had happened the Hell Gate pilot, Captain Frank Haghn, was aboard to assist the Nebraska up the East River and past Hell Gate. Now the Nebraska was being towed to a pier in the Hudson River with a five-foot-by-four-foot hole above its waterline. The freighter had many damaged compartments and miles of charred and blistered paint clear up to its stack. The Empress Bay had lost two of its crew and a news photographer, William V. Finn of the New York Journal American, suffered a heart attack while covering the accident. The Empress Bay sank in the waterway, where for a short time it became a hazard to navigation.

Fireboat Gaynor limped to the Manhattan side of the East River, where she was relieved by the incoming crew. We were tired, dirty and smelly as we raced back to quarters. Ben Messina sidled beside me and quietly said, "Good thing you threw me that rope when you did, I never did learn to swim. You did good, kid, you did OK."