Filling a Void
After enduring the tragedy of 9/11, the FDNY Marine 1 unit came together under the sole commitment to protect their city.
Captain William Connolly wears a solemn expression, one he has earned over his long career with the FDNY, during which time he has witnessed more horror, experienced more loss, than he ever expected from the job.
“There are usually too many people in a fire,” he says with painstaking honesty. “Out here on the water, there are never enough.” This imbalance of first responders is one of the few unfortunate truths he has learned during his eight years with the marine division, 1.5 of which have been with Marine 1, after starting his career as a land-based responder in the Bronx.
His eyes gaze along the waterfront before us, a heavily trafficked section of the Hudson that is always abuzz with commercial traffic, cruise ships, tour boats, recreational craft and even inexperienced kayakers and paddleboarders, who often take to the river after dark.
His eyes land on Little Island, the floating waterfront park that opened next to the Marine 1 station at Pier 55 earlier this year. For the city, it’s an exciting new development at a previously deteriorating section of the waterfront. For Connolly, it represents a new hazard; it’s not a matter of if someone jumps, he says, but when. The FDNY has been charged with developing a rescue plan that accounts for the derelict pilings littering the water between the station and the park, preventing easy access for first responders. They can’t be removed, Connolly explains, because they have become a habitat for worms, which feed the bass. The FDNY must adapt to the challenges and dangers the water presents.
Tied to the dock in front of us is Three Forty Three, the largest fireboat in the country at 140 feet. Her sheer size, rugged yet noble appearance and massive pumps jutting from the bow and stern leave no doubt that she is a certified fire-squandering machine, so much so that you almost forget that a large part of the FDNY’s role is not just responding to fires, but to any on-water emergencies, from people in the water to boats in distress. And many of these disasters stem simply from lack of experience, or lack of responsibility.
Lieutenant Keith Nebel recalls one particularly telling encounter with a paddleboarder resting in the middle of the river. Nebel informed him that a cruise ship would be passing through in 15 minutes after spotting him through the window at the station. “His response was, ‘I’m good, bro.’ And that’s a direct quote,” Nebel says, cringing as he remembers the day. “We have no jurisdiction; we just try to keep people safe.” And with a record number of new boaters on the water this season, they only expect those incidents to become all the more common.
But then, of course, there are the actual fires, the main reason for the behemoth on the dock before us, as well as the 27-foot SAFE Boats vessel named Marine 1 Alpha tied up behind her. As we walk into the station, we hear the smaller craft erupt as the firefighters test her pumps, which they do every day, shooting water at a velocity of 750 gallons per minute, equivalent to a fire engine.
Inside the fire station, the crew on duty feasts on their breakfast buffet of donuts, hot coffee and egg sandwiches. They invite me to sample the selection, imploring me not to be shy about it with friendly jest. It’s easy to become wrapped up in the relaxed atmosphere and casual camaraderie on a calm morning like this one, when everything is going according to routine, but what is less evident is how each member of the Marine 1 crew is always keeping one eye on the water, one ear on the radio. The reality of the job looms overhead as prominently as the empty skyline of Lower Manhattan. For it was only 20 years ago that the crew at Marine 1 started their morning in very much the same way, sitting around the breakfast table, gearing up for business as usual.
At 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, covering Capt. Ed Metcalf was having coffee in the station on his second day working for Marine 1 when he felt the explosion. He immediately self-dispatched on the fireboat John D. McKean.
“Being proactive and progressive is expected,” Connolly explains. “We step in and fill a void.” As Metcalf nosed McKean up to the marine wall at Liberty Street to assemble their resources, he could see people jumping from the top floors of the North Tower through the black smoke. There was hardly time to process the horror; injured civilians soon started arriving at the boat. As they brought them aboard to treat their injuries, the second plane crashed into the South Tower.
Metcalf left the McKean in the hands of his crew and was awaiting orders at the command post across from the World Trade Center during the second collision. Diving to the ground when he heard the explosion, he narrowly escaped with his life and was transported to the hospital. Meanwhile, the McKean headed to New Jersey to seek medical help for the nearly 250 civilians aboard.
The McKean went straight back to Manhattan as the second tower collapsed. All of the hydrants in the city were empty, so the McKean drew water from the river and stretched its supply lines to the World Trade Center. By afternoon, every member of Marine 1 was at Ground Zero assisting in the rescue and evacuation efforts.
Connolly was also working at Ground Zero that day, arriving sometime between 11 and 12 from Jamaica, Queens. He did not leave until almost 7 a.m. the following day. With all public transportation shut down, he and the other firefighters in his unit had no way to return to Queens, so they “borrowed” a city bus they found with the keys left in the ignition. After resting briefly at home, Connolly was back at the World Trade Center every day for more than a month working on the recovery effort, reliving the devastation day after day.
“A lot changed after that day,” says Connolly. “We can retire from this job after 20 years, but very few do because it’s a great job. After 9/11, there were a lot of retirements prematurely. That was hard; we lost a lot of experience.”
While senior firefighters retired, a huge influx of people from around the country joined the Academy. When Connolly asked them why they signed up, the answer was unanimous: “September 11th.”
Today, Manhattan is filling with people hardly old enough to remember the event. The city is full of life, the Hudson packed with recreational and commercial boaters, but despite the outside world seeming very much back to normal, the memory still lingers at Marine 1, even on the quietest days like today. It implicitly affects the crew’s daily routines, their awareness of their surroundings, their sense of responsibility to the city. Breakfast at the station isn’t just breakfast. The potential for a quiet day to escalate is ever present. “We knew the potential of terrorism, but not the devastation,” says Connolly. Now, it can never be unlearned.
Commissioned exactly nine years after the attacks, on September 11, 2010, for $27 million, Three Forty Three (named after the 343 firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty) replaced the McKean after 58 years of service. The 500-ton vessel was designed by Robert Allan Ltd. and built in Panama City, Florida, by Eastern Shipbuilding. She is one of four fireboats in the FDNY fleet.
“[Naval architect] Robert Allen designed a lot of fireboats, but this one was his pride and joy,” says Marine Engineer Timmy Smith as he walks me through the boat’s many complex systems. Three Forty Three has almost twice the pumping capacity of the McKean, capable of pumping 48,000 gallons of water per minute at a standstill, or 24,000 gallons while underway, which is made possible by her four 2,000-hp MTU engines, used for both propulsion and pumping. She can charge into action at an impressive top speed of 18 knots, but she’s rarely pushed past 6 or 7, as she throws a massive 9-foot wake, which can cause some serious damage to the yachts tied up at neighboring marinas. For emergencies requiring a faster response time, they take the SAFE Boats responder, which is powered by twin 250-hp Yamaha outboards and can skim atop the water at 43 knots.
Not only is Three Forty Three the gold standard for a fireboat in terms of size, pumping capacity and foam capacity (she carries 3,200 gallons of foam on board), but she was designed with the learned experience of the 9/11 evacuation close in mind.
Three Forty Three’s massive passenger area is well-equipped to handle another mass evacuation. It can hold 150 passengers, and it can be pressurized so the boat can operate in chemical, biological and radiological environments. There is also a triage area equipped with a defibrillator, so patients in cardiac arrest can receive chest compressions without any of the boat’s operators leaving their posts.
Another innovation inspired in part by the evacuation is the empty tank in the bow, which the crew can rapidly flood with one of the fire pumps in an evacuation to lower the boat until it’s exactly level with the Staten Island Ferry. With 12 feet, 6 inches of freeboard, Three Forty Three towers over the ferry by 4 feet, and injuries would be inevitable if a transfer was necessary without this functionality.
If Three Forty Three needs to retrieve a person from the water or assist a boater in distress without Marine 1 Alpha, the crew can deploy the punt (a small RIB) at her stern while she is underway. Should they need to send a rescue swimmer into the water, it is Connolly’s job to handle the lines in his role as communication liaison.
Because of the boat’s size and the dynamic nature of responding to emergencies on the water, a minimum of seven hands are required on deck at all times. This includes a pilot, chief engineer, assistant engineer, wiper (one rank below assistant engineer) and two firefighters. With this team at her helm, communication stations and engine room (which is always manned when underway), Three Forty Three is in capable hands; each of the nearly 35 Marine 1 members started as land-based firefighters before earning their U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License to join the marine division.
It is easy to see how at home they all feel on the massive vessel as we start to motor down the Hudson and everyone settles into their position at the pilot station. Here, there are four posts: The pilot sits at the helm, the engineer sits to his left and the pilots sit behind and monitor the radios. They are also tasked with monitoring the radiation detector, which picks up a signal as we walk by. “It’s super sensitive,” Smith explains. “We’re getting hit now by phosphorous.” It’s yet another function of the boat that better prepares Marine 1 for emergency response.
As we approach the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan to port and New Jersey to starboard, I step down from the pilot station to the side deck, where a plaque reading “Never Forget 09-11-01” is displayed prominently on the side of the boat. Just through the door to the passenger area is a framed picture of all 343 FDNY members who were killed. Three Forty Three is a remarkable design accomplishment whose systems are endlessly fascinating to her crew, but their affinity for the vessel stretches much deeper than that. She is a living tribute to the fallen firefighters, not just an idle monument, but a life-saving machine that embodies their sacrifice and continues their work.
The reality of working for the FDNY can be cruel. It can take away your team members. It can take away your life. But, if you can weather the tumultuous waters, it will also give. It gives you lifelong friends in your partners. It gives you a purpose in keeping the city safe. And most importantly, it gives you faith that humanity will always rebound.
All it takes is enough people stepping in to fill a void.