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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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."