The restored Fireboat McKean is being transformed into a floating museum.
Posted in , Sep 7, 2021
I heard lots of stories on 9/11. I was a reporter at People magazine in New York City then; that day we scrapped the weekly issue that was slated to close that night and put out a special commemorative 9/11 issue instead. I reported on the phone, hearing harrowing tales of regular people on hijacked planes calling to say goodbye to their loved ones. I reported from the streets in midtown Manhattan, where dazed New Yorkers milled about telling me about narrow escapes, missing loved ones and amazing stories of strangers taking people into their cars and their homes. By the time I left the office at 5:30 a.m. the following day, the sun was dawning on a city—and a world—that would never be the same. My mind was full of incredible stories of unimaginable tragedy, as well as unimaginable heroics.
But until recently, I had never heard a story about an amazing boat that rescued hundreds of people on that fateful day. The Fireboat John McKean, a 129-ft. boat, first commissioned by the FDNY in 1954, ferried hundreds of wounded and desperate survivors from lower Manhattan to safety in New Jersey. It then spent the next few days supplying desperately needed water to firefighters on the ground.
The McKean was put out of service in 2010. But now, just in time for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, many people will have the opportunity to learn its incredible story. Over the last few years, the boat—now owned by the non-profit Fireboat McKean Preservation Project—has been lovingly restored with thousands of hours of volunteer labor and will take part in this year’s official 9/11 services. After that, there are plans to turn it into a museum.
“This boat has an important story to tell; there is a lot of incredible history,” says longtime volunteer and Fireboat McKean Preservation Project spokesperson David Rocco, noting that the refurbished ship will be docked at Pier 25 in Manhattan until October.
“People are going to want to get on the boat and experience it for themselves. But after October, the goal is that it will be a floating museum that goes up and down the Hudson and stops wherever there is a dock,” he said. “Hopefully, we can work out arrangements with local school districts.”
The September 11th attacks are just part of the McKean’s storied history. In 2009, the boat also rescued passengers from U.S. Airways Flight 1549—the Miracle on the Hudson—which famously made an emergency landing in the river. The McKean ceremoniously welcomed runners to the New York City Marathon with a water display every year, assisted the USS Intrepid into its mooring, supervised the annual Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks display barges and hosted numerous dignitaries, including President Bush in 2002.
Retired fireman Tom Sullivan, who was assigned to the Marine 1 unit in 2001, had worked a 24-hour shift and was due to head home from the McKean at 9:00 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when he heard the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46.
“Boom! So I stayed on, we didn’t really know what was happening and we sailed down to the World Trade Center area. We were tying up the boat when the second plane came in over the Statue of Liberty. Boom! Right into the South Tower. In that instant we all knew this was no accident; we were under attack.”
Chaos ensued. Sullivan walked into the streets to try to find a hose connection, but within minutes he heard a deafening rumble as the South tower collapsed.
Suddenly encased in complete darkness, he struggled to find his way back to the boat. But soon a steady stream of what Sullivan calls the “walking wounded” boarded the boat. “Many of them were cut up and burned. We learned later that a lot of the jet fuel had gone down the elevator shafts and spewed out into the tower lobbies.” The crew ministered to the wounded, rescued two women who were floundering in the water and headed to Jersey City. They were helping around 150 people disembark when the second tower fell. “We immediately turned around and headed back to the same spot. When we got there, you really couldn’t see anything,” says Sullivan. “It was like someone had taken a bag of cement and dumped it over your head.”
But it was the boat’s amazing ability to pump river water that made the biggest impact for the next few days.
“We could pump about 20,000 gallons a minute; that’s the equivalent of probably 18 or 20 fire engines,” says Sullivan. Most of the local water main pipes had burst, rendering most fire hydrants completely useless. The boat—joined by two other NYFD fireboats—stayed at the seawall for days, hooking up to as many fire engines as possible.
“I think about 9/11 every single day,” says Sullivan, noting that 343 firemen were killed in the attacks. “This boat has done a lot for so many people; it’s nice that its finally getting some recognition.”