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The New York Times, April 03, 2016

A Workhorse on the Hudson River...

A Workhorse on the Hudson River, Now Retired From Fighting Fires, Chugs Toward a Second Act

 

BOARD THE JOHN D. McKEAN, in Tarrytown, N.Y. — On a gleaming Thursday morning in March, a candy red fireboat rattled awake and set forth from its station in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As the ship voyaged north along the Hudson River at nine knots, it left more than half a century of history in its wake.

Since the 129-foot vessel, the John D. McKean, was commissioned into service in 1954, the sight of it on New York City’s waterfront has signaled some variety of peril — a smoldering warehouse, a capsized barge.

It was there to douse the flames when a fire in 1991 swallowed the Manhattan terminal of the Staten Island Ferry. It shuttled hundreds of people to safety in Jersey City after the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and supplied firefighters with water at ground zero for days thereafter. It gave refuge to passengers huddled on the water-lapped wings of US Airways Flight 1549 after it landed in the Hudson River in January 2009.

Even the ship’s name bears the weight of the New York Fire Department’s past: John D. McKean, a marine engineer, was burned to death in 1953 when he stayed at his post on the fireboat George B. McClellan, trying to steady the vessel after a steam explosion. Mr. McKean’s son and grandson both followed him into the department.

Last month, as the McKean pulled into the Tarrytown Marina, near the Tappan Zee Bridge in Westchester County, there were no flames beckoning its arrival, no emergencies at all. The ship, decommissioned nearly six years ago, was beginning a new phase. It was put up for sale, and after 158 bids, a pair of restaurateurs bought the McKean for $57,400 at an auction in which New York City also sold an array of surplus goods, including camcorders and file cabinets. The boat originally cost the city $1,426,000.

The new owners, Michael Kaphan and Edward Taylor, hope to turn the boat into a museum of sorts that pays homage to its legacy. If all goes as planned, the boat will be open for tours led by former firefighters by July 4, at the dock outside the two men’s coming seafood restaurant in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

“You can’t own something like this,” Mr. Taylor, 54, said as he walked along the port-side deck. “It belongs to the city. We’re just the custodians.”

As New York City’s waterfront has evolved over the decades, so too have its security needs. Burly boats, like the McKean, that could quell fires raging in warehouses that once dotted the shoreline have grown old and outdated. They have been replaced by a more varied and technologically sophisticated fleet of around 20 vessels that can, the Fire Department believes, swiftly respond to conflagrations, chemical spills, and biological and nuclear attacks.

“The port is always changing and we need to keep pace,” Michael Buckheit, the Fire Department’s chief of marine operations, said. “Now we live by the catchphrase ‘fast, powerful and agile.’”

Fireboats do not always find meaningful second acts after they are decommissioned. Many sit around for a few years, getting pressed into service during major emergencies, only to end up being consigned to the scrap heap.

The John J. Harvey avoided that fate. In 1999, it was sold at auction and turned into a private excursion boat, docked on the West Side of Manhattan. When the World Trade Center was attacked, its owners volunteered to return the boat to service. For days, the Harvey worked alongside the McKean and other ships, first evacuating survivors, then putting out the blaze.

When the Fire Fighter was decommissioned in 2010 after 72 years of service, a group of supporters struggled to find a place to moor it as a museum ship. The boat was finally given safe harbor in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island, where visitors can explore the vessel. The John H. Glenn Jr. plied New York’s waters for just 15 years before it went to the fire department in Washington, D.C., in 1977. Other fireboats spend their latter years in shipyards, working as tugboats.

The McKean spent the past couple of years mostly dormant, though it was hauled out to help when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. Even so, its new owners were surprised to discover that the McKean had remained largely intact.

“Everything still works, she just needs some lipstick,” Mr. Taylor said, revving up the twin 1,000-horsepower engines to a deafening rumble.

As he ascended from the bowels of the ship last week, Mr. Taylor marveled at its gadgetry and craftsmanship. Six water cannons stood ready on the decks, their brass nozzles oxidized to the color of turquoise. The phone connecting the wheelhouse to the engine room sprang to life with the turn of a crank. A weather-beaten American flag, recovered from within the captain’s quarters, fluttered from a rope atop the watchtower.

Of the ship’s many treasures, Mr. Taylor took particular pride in a gift from the McKean family: a framed photograph of John McKean’s son and grandson in front of the craft, as well as a letter thanking him and Mr. Kaphan “for keeping the fireboat John D. McKean on the Hudson River where it has always been.”

The day the McKean left Brooklyn for Tarrytown, it was accompanied by its replacement, the Three Forty Three, named in honor of the 343 members of the Fire Department who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Upon reaching the George Washington Bridge, the McKean family joined a crew of marine firefighters on the starboard side of the Three Forty Three to offer the decommissioned ship a farewell salute.

“It was very emotional, like sending a child off to college,” Mr. Buckheit said.

Last week, the McKean was visited by James Campanelli, who piloted the ship on Sept. 11. As he gazed at the familiar hull with his two sons, Mr. Campanelli, 57, was taken back to that morning — the pitch black smoke that enveloped the ship after the first tower fell, the uncanny silence over the radio. Still, the vision of the McKean resting at the dock gave him a sense of peace.

“The boats change, but our basic job remains the same,” he said. “We put out fires."

Written by Noah Remnick on April 03, 2016
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