Vintage: Fireboat John McKean responded to 9/11. Now it has a new gig in NYC as a floating museum, US
The retired NYFD Fireboat John D McKean is moored at Pier 25 off Lower Manhattan. The fireboat rescued hundreds of people fleeing Lower Manhattan on 11 September 2001. It also helped to keep Captain Sullenberger's "Miracle on the Hudson" aircraft afloat in January of 2009. The Fireboat John McKean might have figured out this retirement thing after all. Purchased at auction in 2016, for $57 400, by Westchester restaurateurs Michael Kaphan and Edward Taylor, the McKean, which ferried people to safety and pumped water to the smouldering World Trade Centre on 9/11, has had a peripatetic five years. It has been acting more like a Manhattan socialite than a hard-working former member of the Fire Department New York (FDNY). It flirted with the restaurant business, had run-ins with NIMBY suburban neighbours who complained it blocked their river views, has had some work done and rode out the pandemic out of town. Moored since last month at Pier 25 in New York Harbour, US, where it will mark the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, the McKean’s latest attempt at reinvention begins this month, as a floating museum.
John D McKean is a fireboat that served the New York City Fire Department as Marine Company 1. Named in memory of Marine Engineer John D McKean, who was burned by live steam on 17 September 1953 in an explosion on the George B McClellan. Although fatally injured, McKean heroically remained at his post vainly trying to keep the vessel under control. He died on 22 September 1953.
This boat went into service in 1955.
Tracy Conte, president of the Fireboat McKean Preservation Project non-profit and the daughter of McKean fire fighter Harry Wanamaker, said the vessel is ready for her closeup. "She looks great. Our volunteers have done an amazing job. There's more restoration work to be done. We've got some marine engineers who we're hoping to raise some money for, so they can do some work under the deck in the engine room. But she looks gorgeous. She runs, she floats and she squirts her water hoses," Conte said.
The McKean has sought landmark status in an application Conte said is still being reviewed. And Conte had few details about when, precisely, the gangway would be lowered to let on museum-goers, beyond saying it would be "later this month."
9/11 and 'Miracle on the Hudson'
The retired NYFD Fireboat John D McKean is moored at Pier 25, just north of Battery Park City. The fireboat was involved in fighting the fires at the World Trade Centre during the attacks of 11 September 2001. It also helped to keep Captain Sullenberger's "Miracle on the Hudson" plane afloat in 2009. The McKean is to open this month as a floating museum.
Conte said those drawn to the McKean are an interesting mix of mariners and fire fighters, with the mariners marvelling at the boat's original 1954 engines and fire fighters eager to talk about the action the McKean saw.
It saw plenty
A return to Battery Park City
The 129-foot fireboat is now moored just north of Battery Park City, so close to the Freedom Tower it feels like you can reach out and touch it, and not far from where its crew toiled on 9/11 at the seawall south of the North Cove Marina.
On a recent visit, its new neighbours on Pier 25 included a mix of sun-worshiping Gothamites in various stages of undress, owner-tugging lapdogs eager to reach the water’s edge and kettle-belling go-getters straining to a loud and propulsive beat. They all seemed oblivious to the celebrity in their midst.
But one young father pushing a stroller stopped to marvel at the polished and painted McKean, wondering if he and his son could climb aboard. Not yet, said David Rocco, a member of the non-profit that is getting the fireboat ready for its next chapter.
Rocco, who lives in Yorktown, has been involved in other major preservation and restoration projects, including the Mt Beacon Fire Observation Tower, the Walkway Over the Hudson and now the Fireboat McKean.
The retired carpenter wears many hats on the McKean project: fundraiser, spokesman, tour-giver, whatever it takes to raise the project’s profile.
There's plenty to celebrate, he said, adding that its history could be a movable feast, taking the McKean back up the river through the Hudson Valley, a museum that will find its patrons where they are.
A red bandanna visitor
NYC fire fighter Lt Harry Wanamaker of Upper Nyack, left, with Welles Remy Crowther on the Fireboat McKean in New York Harbour, on 20 June 2001. Crowther died saving others in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. Wanamaker, who volunteered at the Upper Nyack's Empire Hook and Ladder Company, worked on "The Pile" at Ground Zero to find Welles' body and succumbed to 9/11-related illness in 2010.
Included in the history is a moment that connects the McKean directly to the Twin Towers and not just through a hose line stretching down Liberty Street.
Conte's father, Harry Wanamaker of Upper Nyack, spent the last few years of his fire fighting career on the fireboat. It was to the McKean, in June 2001, that Wanamaker welcomed a young friend from Upper Nyack's Empire Hook and Ladder Company.
The young man stood in the stern of the McKean next to Wanamaker and told his photographer father, also an Empire member, to make sure to frame the photo to capture the Twin Towers in the shot. That's where the young man worked, after all. The photo should capture his fire fighting past, beside Wanamaker, with his World Trade Centre present.
Three months later, that young man, Welles Crowther, stood in the smoke and flame of the South Tower, with his trademark red bandanna wrapped around his mouth and nose, and his fire fighting training kicked in. Survivors recalled a young man speaking loud, clear and calm. "I found the stairs," he said. "Follow me. Only help the ones that you can help. And follow me."
After getting one group to safety, he carried one woman on his shoulders from the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor to the 61st floor, Crowther went back up to save more. He is credited with saving at least eight people, likely more.
Harry Wanamaker worked on the McKean on 9/11 and on "The Pile" of rubble after the buildings collapsed, hoping to find Crowther's body. Years later, in 2010, the effects of that exposure cost Wanamaker his life, to 9/11-related illness. (Crowther's father, Jefferson, died in 2019, from prostate cancer.)
History on display at Pier 25
History is what will draw people to Pier 25 from now through October, the duration of its mooring there, Conte said. Soon, a new gangway and welcome visitors eager to learn about the lovingly restored boat, which has been painted from stem to stern for the occasion, its hull repaired in an Upper Nyack shipyard, its most recent address as the pandemic guest of a generous Stony Point oil company.
Conte said that the group had raised $350 000 since 2016 "and it was all put right back into the boat." They're still raising money, to cover the $80 000 balance they owe the North River Shipyard and to fund fireboat tours for 9/11 families, which cost about $3 000 each, Conte said. But people will come, she said, her voice choking with emotion.
She thinks about her father, working in those desperate first hours, days, weeks. Of what that work would cost him. Her. Her family. "That day changed his life and probably our whole family and our community of Nyack, the lives that were lost," she said. "The 20th anniversary is a big deal." She pauses to think of the first responders who continue to get sick and die.
If there's still suffering going on, she wonders, can it be that long ago?
A Fireboat McKean timeline
A look at key moments in the history of the Fireboat John McKean:
1953: Marine Engineer John McKean is badly burned in a steam-pipe explosion on the George B McLellan but stays at his post. He later dies of his wounds.
1954: The Fireboat McKean is built in Camden, New Jersey, for a reported $1.4 million and goes into serving, as FDNY’s Marine One, for 56 years.
1991: McKean fights the Staten Island Ferry Terminal fire in Manhattan.
2001: McKean is part of a flotilla that rescued thousands of people fleeing Lower Manhattan during the World Trade Centre attack, delivering them safely to New Jersey before returning to pump water to fight the fires in the rubble.
2009: The McKean responds to the “Miracle on the Hudson” call, holding Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger’s aircraft afloat, rescuing passengers and towing the aircraft to shore.
2016: McKean is purchased at auction by Michael Kaphan and Edward Taylor, owners of Purdy’s Farmer and the Fish in North Salem, for $57 400. They announce plans to turn it into a restaurant at its Sleepy Hollow berth. Those plans are later scrapped.
2017: The McKean marks the opening of the Gov Mario M Cuomo Bridge.
2018: Fireboat McKean Preservation Project is formed. The McKean applies for national historic landmark status.
2019: McKean’s hull repaired at the North River Shipyard in Upper Nyack.
2020-21: The McKean rides out the pandemic, docked at Panco Petroleum in Stony Point.
23 June 2021: The McKean docks at Pier 25, where it will stay till October.
July 2021: Organisers plan to open McKean floating museum.
Source: Lohud, Fireboat McKean Preservation Project