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Friday, November 18, 2011

NYC Fireboat John J. Harvey Keeps History Afloat

NYC Fireboat John J. Harvey 
Keeps History Afloat:
Bridgeport a recent stop for 80-year-old vessel
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Bridgeport News)

Bridgeport, CT -- Boy, can this old girl make an entrance! She caused quite a buzz on a recent fall weekday afternoon when, with escorts by her side, she slid around St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea and made a big splash in Bridgeport Harbor.

The grande dame of note was the John J. Harvey, an 80-year-old fireboat built for the Fire Department of New York City and commissioned in 1931. After 63 years of service, she was decommissioned, sold at auction and saved from being scrapped by a small group of maritime preservationists operating under the banner Save Our Ships New York. The historic boat has been lovingly maintained by volunteers and, each year, travels the region’s waterways, stopping in various towns to teach people about maritime history, promote waterfront revitalization… and squirt some water as she did during her harbor arrival.

Bridgeport News was on the scene as this floating piece of history, led by the Harbormaster and flanked by the Harbor Patrol, pulled up to the dock at Captain’s Cove, her water cannons creating a fantastic shower and horns and bells drawing local folks down to take a look. We met the captain and engineers, spoke with dock personnel and took a comprehensive tour of the boat, learning more about her legend and recent roles she has played.

A remarkable craft and distinguished service

The noted fireboat, which spent her entire career on the west side of Manhattan in the North River, was named after Pilot John J. Harvey, who was killed in the line of duty February 11, 1930 at a fire aboard the North German Lloyd Line’s S.S. Muenchen. A year-and-a-half later, on October 6, 1931, the 130-foot-long fireboat was launched and, less than two weeks later, commissioned and stationed along the Battery Park seawall.

The Harvey’s power source was originally five Sterling Viking II, 8-cylinder, 565-HP gasoline engines. In 1957, these were replaced in the same footprint with five 600-HP Fairbanks-Morse model 38f5 ¼ 8-cylinder opposed-piston diesel engines. Two smoke stacks were also added to accommodate them. Four LeCourtenay centrifugal pumps connected to four outboard engines allowed 16,000 gallons of water per minute to be disbursed through eight deck pipes and 24 fire hose connections. These cannons and fittings are still featured on the boat – all original and in full working condition.

Powering lights and other on-board elements such as compressors, steerage and gauges is Westinghouse DC equipment with six generators and two 1065-HP electric propulsion motors, again, all original and fully operating today.

The Harvey has the distinction of being the first large modern fireboat in America – its predecessors were all steam powered. Its engines provide pumping and propulsion simultaneously, making her the fastest large fireboat while pumping.

On May 3, 1932, she responded to her first major fire, at Cunard Pier 54, joining other fireboats. On April 24, 1943, she fought a fire on the munitions freighter El Estero, which was carrying over 1,400 tons of high-powered explosives on board. The Harvey and a second boat, Fire Fighter, doused the flames as the ship was towed away from the Statue of Liberty and vital waterfront facilities, and sunk. Her efforts saved New York Harbor and earned the crew the FDNY’s Medal of Valor.

On February 9, 1942, the French Line’s Normandie, one of the most beautiful ships ever constructed, caught fire at her berth on Pier 88 and, ironically, capsized because of water pumped on board by the Harvey and other boats.

Ultimately, in July 1994, she was taken out of service by the FDNY and destined to be junked. However, on February 11, 1999, 69 years to the day that Pilot John J. Harvey lost his life in the line of duty, the fireboat was bought from the City at auction and rescued from the scrap yard.

An impromptu stopover a plus for Bridgeport

“The Harvey’s permanent berth is Pier 66 on the Hudson and we were on our way back down there from Mystic, where we had spent Columbus Day weekend,” said Captain Huntley Gill, standing dockside with Captain’s Cove owner Bruce Williams. “I called Bruce to ask if we could stop in for the night.”

Said Williams, “The history of this vessel is awesome and it’s great to have her here. We hope to have her return next summer when the restaurant reopens and have people visit.”

Assistant Engineer John Browne welcomed Bridgeport News aboard and put us in the company of Chief Engineer Jessica Dulong. Remarking on how she came to be in her role, and the fact that she is virtually unique as a female engineer, Dulong said, “I started out as a volunteer 10 years ago, after being laid off from a job right when there was an opening on board. Huntley invited me to try my hand and, after a decade of apprenticeship, I’m now chief engineer.”

Dulong’s knowledge of the craft was comprehensive. “She was overbuilt, with brass and bronze,” she said. “The deck guns and main water piping are all brass. Today, these would be made of steel. We’re looking at a moment in American history where fine craftsmanship was the guiding principle of the day.”

Dulong said that particularly rare is the engines, because of their opposed-piston design, versus single pistons wtih heads. “It was the first internal combustion-powered fireboat built for the FDNY, setting the standard for all modern fireboats.”

Stepping down steep metal stairs to the engine room, Dulong said, “This compartment can reach 130 degrees. Fortunately, there’s a lot of movement of air due to engine operation.”

With regard to the deck cannons, or guns, Dulong shared that their pumping capacity, when working at once, is the equivalent of 20 land-based pumper trucks. “When she was brand new on October 6, 1931, she shot water over the lower roadway of the George Washington Bridge,” she said. “She has an incredible amount of pressure. She can blast through a cement wall.”

Today, in addition to its education mission, the Harvey hosts young people from summer camps and foster care, as well as children with developmental, emotional and behavioral disabilities. It has also worked with the Police Athletic League and Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance to offer summer programs teaching maritime and leadership skills, and boat safety.

The boat currently needs capital improvements to ensure her long-term survival. Having successfully matched a $320,000 NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation grant, advocates are now working to match a $165,000 Save America’s Treasures grant, the most prestigious of its kind.

Donations are tax deductible and can be directed to Save Our Ships New York, 100 West 72nd Street, #6-G, New York, NY 10023. For more information about the John J. Harvey, visit


Hero of the Harbor: John J. Harvey’s Role in 9/11

“On 9/11, we were parked at Pier 63 on the Hudson River, two miles north of the World Trade Center,” said Tim Ivory, former chief engineer of the John J. Harvey, standing on the dock beside the vessel at Bridgeport’s Captain Cove. “One of the boat’s owners had talked with dispatch at the FDNY and offered the boat. There was no formal communication.”

Ivory got a call to operate it and joined nine other crew members at the berth. “The North Tower dropped first, then the South tower, as we were getting under way,” he continued, “and a cloud of dust went across the river. The Coast Guard called us to help evacuate people. As we went past the site to Battery Park City, we picked up about 150 people and started coming back north.”

Ivory said an FDNY lieutenant, Tom White, spotted them, and said he needed water on the scene. The idea was to hook up fire hoses at Ground Zero to the boat’s pump system, but there was a hitch. First, there was so much destroyed equipment between the Harvey and the site, that there was no way to get relay support. Secondly, Ivory said, “Our manifolds are 3 ½ inches – the city’s today are three inches,” he said. “As our water cannons were three inches, we took the nozzles off and hooked up hoses, that firefighters brought out to us, directly to the cannons.”

The Harvey was situated between two City fireboats up close – a front row seat. “We were continuously pumping for the first 40-50 hours, with 8,000 gallons a minute going in, then stayed an additional two days as stand-by,” said Ivory. “It was surreal. Everyone and everything was black and white. In fact, it was a day or two before I realized all the crumpled up vehicles were emergency services. I also thought the lieutenant was 60 or 70 years old because of the ash. He showered and I realized he was only in his 40s. When it rained, suddenly everything had color. For our efforts that day, NY State Representative Carolyn B. Maloney secured a citation for the vessel and its service.”

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