The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) had retired the fireboat John J. Harvey. But the boat and its crew went back into action when “she assisted in the large-scale relief and evacuation efforts at the World Trade Center following the deadly terrorist attacks” on September 11, 2001.
The history of the John J. Harvey
The FDNY Fireboat John J. Harvey was built and launched in 1931. It was named for FDNY pilot John J. Harvey, “who was killed aboard fireboat Thomas Willett while fighting a fire aboard the North German Lloyd Line’s SS Muenchen.” The fireboat was historic for a number of “firsts” – including “the first fireboat powered by internal combustion engines and the first that could pump and maneuver simultaneously.” She was also the “largest, fastest fire-fighting machine of her time, capable of pumping 18,000 gallons per minute.”
The FDNY fireboat assisted during such notable New York marine fires along the New York waterfront as the Cunard Line pier fire in 1932, the burning of the French liner Normandie in 1942, the ammunition ship El Estero during World War II, and the oil tankers Alva Cape and Texaco Massachusetts in 1966. She served the FDNY and the City of New York until her retirement in 1995.
After the John J. Harvey was retired, it was purchased by a group of marine preservationists and was later added to the National Register of Historic Places.
September 11, 2001 – the boat lift
Members of the Harvey’s crew learned of the World Trade Center attacks from news reports. They started the fireboat’s engines and headed to the area, joining “various tugboats and ferries helping with disaster relief efforts.” As the other boats were doing, the Harvey transported people from the lower Manhattan sea wall to safety.
“All available boats, this is the United States Coast Guard….” With those words broadcast over marine radio channels, the U.S. Coast Guard asked for assistance as it sought to organize evacuation efforts from lower Manhattan Island.
Among the first to respond were dozens of tugboats and their crews, as well as the ferries that normally shuttled people to destinations around New York harbor.
As the tragedy took place in front of them, captains piloted ferries, tugs and other ships to the sea walls built along the southern edge of Manhattan and began loading them with as many people as possible.
In places along the shoreline, “the injured, scared and shocked were 10 deep.” Some survivors were covered by the post-explosion dust and “came to the water’s edge looking more like gray ghosts.”
Over a nine-hour period following the collapse of the Twin Towers, over 150 ferries, tugboats, Coast Guard cutters and recreational boats rescued more than 500,000 people from Manhattan’s piers and seawalls. They took them to safety on Staten Island, Ellis Island and New Jersey. The 500,000 people rescued was the largest sea evacuation in history and is greater than the population of St. Louis.
Speaking to CNN in August 2017, NYPD officer Tyrone Powell said this about the rescue efforts put forth by hundreds: “We had like Noah’s Ark. We had everybody on that boat. We had animals. We had babies without parents. Everybody was covered in soot.”
September 11, 2001 – serving the FDNY and the citizens of New York City
A few hours after the attacks, the FDNY recalled the John J. Harvey to service; it was reactivated as “Marine Company 2.” In concert with FDNY fireboats Fire Fighter and John D. McKean, the John J. Harvey provided “pumping capacity for water in the vicinity of the World Trade Center” because all of the hydrants in the area were temporarily inoperable.
The fireboats pumped water for the next 80 hours – “providing critically needed water with their fire hoses” until water mains and hydrants in lower Manhattan “were fully functioning again.”
Maritime writer Roy Attaway later wrote, “To firemen who had survived the terrorist attacks, the Harvey must have seemed an apparition, an old warrior coming out of the mists of memory to do battle one more time.”
The work done by the Harvey on September 11 and the days following was the subject of countless news articles and a 2002 book.
After being retired again in 2005, the John J. Harvey is now moored at Pier 66 Maritime, at 26th Street and the Hudson River. The historic fireboat “serves as an operational museum and education center, offering free public trips to New Yorkers and visitors.”
The FDNY fireboat John J. Harvey joined brave members of the FDNY, the New York City Police Department and countless volunteers in the effort to rescue survivors of the Twin Towers and the other buildings damaged or destroyed in the terrorist attacks.
While this article is primarily about FDNY Fireboat John J. Harvey, a salute and thank you to all the boat captains and crews that helped in the 9/11 boatlift must be made. And, of course, to the first responders – FDNY firefighters, NYPD officers and others – not only those in Manhattan on 9/11, but all Americans give their thanks for your effort and sacrifice.