Widgets Magazine

Q&A with Ben Heins, Volunteer with Greenport’s Fire Fighter, the Landmark Fireboat Museum

Photo Credits Dan RitzlerQ: How did you get involved with the fireboat?

A: I was a volunteer firefighter for 18 years with Greenport and Shelter Island, but I lost 40% of the use in my left leg in a Shelter Island dump fire about three years ago. Although I stayed on with the department a couple more years, I couldn’t really do the firefighting thing, I lost interest in it.

I was looking for something else volunteer-ish to do, and I’m also a history nut, and I saw the fireboat just sitting there in Greenport. So the next thing I know I’m giving tours and organizing fundraisers and stuff like that. It’s a very small museum, all volunteers.

Q: How did the fireboat come to Greenport? A: It went straight from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it had been sitting for a couple years, to Greenport.

What happened was, the guy who runs the museum—Charlie Ritchie—who had been on a number of historic boats over the years, heard a national landmark was just sitting rotting in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Charlie found out about her, and he and a group of friends formed a not-for-profit, bought her and brought her to Greenport in 2012.

Q: She’s a landmark?

A: Yes, a nationally registered historic landmark. She’s been registered with the National Parks Service since 1989, due in part to her nearly original equipment and the fact that she’d been designed and built by William Frances Gibb, the renowned naval architect who went on to design WWII Liberty Ships, countless merchant marine ships and the USS United States. She was in service from 1938 to 2010, so they never put the plaque on her.

Taking her out of service was a city budget issue—the city had purchased two new boats that were more equipped to do modern firefighting in the city. That’s how she ended up in the navy yard—that’s where they store their boats I guess while they’re trying figure out what to do with them.

The city didn’t really want to see her scrapped. She and her crews have been heroic over the years, and this fireboat, when she was built, was considered the biggest, most powerful fireboat for decades. Until the 90s or so.

Q: What do you mean, powerful? 

Power is the number of gallons of water it can pump per minute. This boat, Fire Fighter, can pump 20,000 gallons per minute.Put it this way-the average firetruck, that you see driving down the road, can put out about 1500 gallons per minute.

Q: Wow, that’s powerful. She’s more than 10 times more powerful than a modern fire truck, and she was built in 1938—how did that happen?

A: Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor, and decided as a still-the-Depression public works project to spend nearly a million bucks –remember, in 1938 dollars---to build the world’s most powerful fireboat for the world’s most amazing city. He got the idea from Gibb.

She was really innovative in that she was the city’s first diesel-electric boat. She had diesel engines that powered generators that produce electricity, and the rest of the boat ran on electricity. The same sorts of motor were in submarines and destroyers and such through the Vietnam War.

Funny thing though. Up to this point, it had been traditional to name fireboats after the mayor, or a specific fallen firefighter. LaGuardia decided that maybe he didn’t want his name on this enormously expensive boat, for political reasons. So she was named Fire Fighter.

Q: You said she and her crew had been heroic.

A: Yes. She had numerous awards for her service to New York City and New Jersey, but one of the biggest was the Merchant Marine Gallant Ship award in 1974 for her rescue of the crew of the container ship Sea Witch, after a collision under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. After the collision, the fire with the thick black smoke, the city didn’t think anyone could be saved. The Fire Fighter and her crew decided to try anyway, and successfully rescued the whole crew.

More recently, she was part of the 9/11 boat lift, and after the boat lift Fighter, along with fire boat "McKean" and retired fire boat "Harvey", provided water to fight fires and suppress dust at ground zero. After that, she was involved in the rescue efforts when Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger landed his plane on the Hudson River in 2009, along with fire boat McKean.

Q: How can people experience Fire Fighter?

A: Right now we’re doing weekend tours, open Saturdays and Sundays usually around 11 am to 5 pm (off season hours). Columbus Day weekend we’ll be open that Monday as possible. We’ll also do tours by appointment for schools, homeschools, fire departments, etc.

We try to match the school schedule—we try to be open when school is closed. Some of our volunteers giving tours are high school kids. We’re in our first year, and we’re all volunteers—which we’d like to get more of. At this point, we’re not licensed to do charters, we can do special events on board like we did for the Maritime Festival, but we’re still working it all out.

Q: What do you like about being involved with the fireboat?

A: You get to meet a great group of people; there’s always a fun crowd on the boat.

It’s not a museum in the traditional sense. She’s a working boat, everything’s original, nothing’s behind Plexiglas. What got us the National Landmark Status is that she’s still running her original controls and that’s part of the tour, you get to see the engine room and the controls, it’s not roped off.

Once we have a small group together, we will do a tour, it will run 15 minutes to half an hour, kind of depends on the interest of the crowd. The tours are free, though there’s a donation can on the dock.

Q: Do you have any events coming up?

A: Right now we’re working on two.

Because she was always a working boat, she never had a plaque put on her for her landmark status. So the National Park Service found the plaque, and we’re planning a rededication ceremony. We’re aiming for November 16, 2014--she was put in service on November 16, 1938--but the details aren’t final yet. Stay tuned.

The second event is an orientation for the next influx of volunteers—people who want to help with the tours, with the painting, polishing, whatnot. We’ve gotten some new interest, enough to justify a full orientation. So now’s a good time to step up if someone’s interested. One group that’s stepping up is SUNY Maritime. They adopted us. That’s why they were here at the Greenport Maritime Festival—they can for her.

For more information or to volunteer please call: 631-875-6166.

Also, check out the website for a lot more history, a virtual tour, and other information.