In May of 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorized Operation Dynamo; the historic “miraculous intervention” that rescued over 338,000 English, French, Polish and Belgian soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. Over a period of nine days from May 27 – June 4, 1940 over 860 vessels, of which more than 400 were privately owned small craft, voluntarily and compassionately carried out a courageous mission of hope that has always been, and continues to be, a hallowed trademark of the civilian maritime community. This act of desperation resulted in the heroic Miracle of Dunkirk, but only due to the selfless efforts and determination of British seamen and their crews.
“One of the most motley fleets of history – ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft – took men off from the very few ports left and from the open beaches themselves . . .” ~George Fielding Eliot, U.S. Army Officer
On September 11, 2001 our world was changed forever. The attack upon New York City’s World Trade Center Twin Towers delivered to American soil the brutality and inhumanity of an evil not known since the horrors that fascism brought to Europe in the late 1930’s.
Like Dunkirk, one of the most remarkable yet mostly untold stories of the events surrounding 9/11 is one of the brave and fearless efforts of the civilian maritime community of New York City. Collectively they rescued more than 500,000 New Yorkers from the tragic and perilous environment left by the aftermath at Ground Zero. When the United States Coast Guard Pilot Boat #1 put out an alert to “All available boats!” hundreds responded including 50 Tugs, 33 Ferries, sightseeing and dinner cruise boats and small personal pleasure craft. These maritime heroes, much like their seafaring brothers and sisters sixty-one years earlier, delivered over one half million frightened, confused and in some cases injured people to safety in just nine hours.
One of these crafts, which was recently honored at the 2018 Waterford Tug Boat Roundup as “TUG OF THE YEAR”, was the NYFD Fireboat John J. Harvey. She launched in 1931 and was active in the NYFD marine fleet until she was retired in 1995. In her day she was the fastest fire-fighting vessel of her generation and her pumps could spray 18,000 gallons of water per minute from three locations on deck; fore, mid and aft.
Having been retired four years earlier, in 1999 she was rescued from the scrap yard by a group of maritime preservationists who believed that she should be preserved and honored for her dedication to the city and her numerous missions that saved both lives and property for 64 years. The efforts of her new owners and the volunteers that restored her were rewarded in June 2000 when the John J. Harvey was honored by being enrolled in the prestigious National Park Service National Registry of Historic Preservation.
But her shining moment was when she responded to the “All available boats” call on the morning of September 11, 2001. At first she joined the fleet that was rescuing survivors from lower Manhattan; but early on she was contacted by the NYFD and informed that they needed water because the damage caused by the collapse of the Twin Towers had destroyed the water delivery system of Manhattan. Others could rescue survivors; the John J. Harvey was needed to return to active duty as the proud Fireboat she had always been.
Once the crew determined that her pumps were fully operational the Department ordered her return to active fleet duty as Marine Company 2. It took a bit of maritime ingenuity, but the crew was able to adapt her “plumbing” to the new generation of firefighting hardware. Within an hour she was providing water to the struggling forces of the NYFD, and for the next 80 hours the John J. Harvey pumped 38 million gallons of water and helped firefighters throughout New York City fight the lingering devastation of the terrorists attack at Ground Zero. She simply had become a massive and proud floating fire hydrant.
“We teach tens of thousands of citizens about the rich maritime heritage of New York . . . and awe them with John J. Harvey’s complex, enduring and elegant engineering.
John J. Harvey’s work for her community and her on-going restoration as a vessel underway have been recognized in the Congressional Record and by awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York and the Steamship Historical Society of America and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.” ~Fireboat.Org, January 2013
These two historic events serve as monumental examples of what a community of people is capable of when faced with the epic challenges too often caused by the evil intentions of a demented few. Especially significant here is the link that mariners have always shared; a bond that when “All available boats” is called out, the multitudes will respond. It happened in 1940, again in 2001 – and hopefully never needs to be repeated.
In the case of the John J. Harvey, she is the standard–bearer of why the preservation of these historic vessels is so important. Through the incredibly dedicated efforts of many, she responded at a time when America was most in need; and she continues to be a part of the living history of New York’s famed maritime tradition. Whether it is the vessels that travel our beloved canal, or the infrastructure itself, we must honor vessels like the John J. Harvey and dedicate ourselves to SAVE, PRESERVE AND HONOR OUR MARITIME HERITAGE. Their history must always be seen not just as our past, but who we are as New Yorkers now and into the future.
Actor Tom Hanks and producer/director Eddie Rosenstein (Eye Pop Productions) created an 11 minute video that will lift you up and make you proud of how civilian mariners came together in response to this catastrophic event. Watch the Youtube video here – “Boatlift – An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience”
#SaveTheUrger AND #KeepCanalBoatsAfloat