Bob Lenney: Bringing water to the fire

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A 9/11 hero who refused to let himself be called that…
(March 18, 1936 – June 11, 2016)

Bob Lenney was the skipper of the Fire Department of New York fireboat the John J. Harvey.

To fully appreciate what this means, I have to tell a few stories.

In 1931, the FDNY launched what was then the world’s largest fireboat, the John J. Harvey.

What’s a fireboat?

Apparently my word processor doesn’t know because it’s flagging it as a misspelling.

A fireboat is like a fire engine, but it travels on the water. Also, instead of using a fire hydrant it gets its water from whatever it’s floating on, a point that will become important later in this story.

Why did New York need such a big fireboat?

In the 1930s, Manhattan Island was ringed with piers, wooden piers, and putting out fires on them from the land was difficult sometimes to the point of impossible.

The John J. Harvey had a simple method for dealing with out-of-control dock fires.

It sucked water up from the Hudson River and then shot it out through its water cannons (“pipes”) with such force, it could not only put out the fire, but also knock the pier down if needed. Sometimes this drastic action was needed to prevent the fire from spreading to other docks thus ringing Manhattan with fire. In an age when there were still a lot of wooden buildings in the city the importance of this can’t be overstated.

So you see why this ship was needed

Piers aren’t the only things that that catch fire. Ships catch fire too and a ship fire is a nightmare for sailors. The only way to hope to put those fires out when they get out of control is with a fireboat for obvious reasons.

Some ship fires are more serious that others.

As if battling the Normandie fire and saving hundreds of seamen wasn’t enough, the Harvey also was involved in the operation to deal with a fire on the El Estero during World War II. The ship was packed with ammunition and docked in New Jersey next to two other ships being loaded with ammunition.

All told, between the ships and what was on the docks, there was 5,000 tons of high explosives sitting there exposed to an out of control fire.

To make matters worse, the ships were docked in an area that was ringed with huge fuel oil tanks

A similar occurrence in the harbor of Halifax during WW I led to an explosion that killed 2,000, injured thousands more, leveled large swaths of the city, and destroyed the waterfront and much of the city’s industrial sector.

What to do?

Tugboats towed the burning ship away from the piers into the harbor and away from inhabited areas as quickly as possible.

During the towing, a fleet of fireboats led by the John J. Harvey, followed the ship, continuously spraying it in an effort to contain the fire. Given that the munitions ship could have easily exploded with cataclysmic force at any moment, this was hazardous duty with a capital “H.”

Finally, when it became obvious the fire could not be controlled, the order was given to sink the ship and the Harvey and the other fireboats involved methodically filled the burning ship with water, swamping it and ultimately sinking it. Thus a catastrophe of unthinkable scale was averted.

Fast forward to the future…

In 1991, the city, in a cost savings move, decided it didn’t need a big fireboat any more, decommissioned the Harvey and sent it to a dock in Brooklyn where it was mothballed and languished for years.

Then another accountant – maybe the same one who decided to decommission it – decided to sell it for scrap.

Thus a ship that would cost many, many millions of dollars to re-create today was offered up for auction for pennies and was most likely headed to Japan as raw material for Toyotas.

Then some “crazy” people, who I’m proud to call friends, emerged and saved the Harvey with an auction bid of $28,010.

Fortunately, they had no idea what they were getting into because if they had maybe they wouldn’t have done it.

Several hundreds of thousands of dollars later…the ship was steaming its way across New York harbor doing a public water display with its pipes (the water cannons.)

The date was August 2001.

Everyone knows what happened a month later

One of the many unreported stories from 9/11 – the media chose to focus on the panic, not on the resourcefulness of the people on the scene – the collapse of the Twin Towers severed most of the water mains in lower Manhattan.

No water in Lower Manhattan on 9/11. Let that sink it for a minute.

Buildings on fire. Cars on fire. Choking, blinding dust everywhere. And no water anywhere to deal with it.

The owners of the Harvey had called the city and, like so many scores of other boats, volunteered to act as a ferry to get people off the island to safety.

When the water situation became clear, the Fire Department radioed the Harvey to drop off its passengers in a safe spot as quickly as possible and return to the disaster site to pump water. Ten years after it was decommissioned, the John j. Harvey was recommissioned as a fireboat.

Easier said than done.

The Harvey had two big logistical problems: There was no place for the ship to tie up and the ship’s pipes (water cannons) did not fit together with the fire hoses.

Both these problems were quickly solved, the first by veteran tugboat captain Pamela Hepburn and the second by marine engineer par excellence Tim Ivory.

For fours days and nights, the Harvey and its all-volunteer crew stayed at the foot of the smoking crater of the Towers pumping water to put out fires, suppress dust, and wash down rescue workers.

We now know that the collapse of the Towers and some of the surrounding buildings were the only acts of violence during those days. The crew had no way of knowing that or what, if anything, was coming next. I don’t think I have to point out the bravery that was involved in manning that post at that time.

I certainly don’t have Bob’s permission to tell this next part of the story, but he can’t stop me now and I’m going to tell it because it needs to be told…

When the Towers collapsed, I’m sure you can imagine the panic that ensued.

All the ships that were docking in the disaster zone at the time were operating as ferries.

When the Towers came down a flood of  – let’s just say brawny men employed in a paramilitary organization – jumped aboard and rushed the wheelhouse demanding that Bob “get this boat out of here.”

The wheelhouse is basically a very small room on the top of the ship where the wheel and ship’s controls are. It has one door. When full it can be a bit claustrophobic especially when it’s rushed by a group of large and understandably terrified physically formidable young men.

Bob explained to these men in a tone that the situation required that the ship had a mission, it was staying put and they needed to find another way off the island.

It was the proverbial “tense situation.”

In time, they eventually got the idea, left the wheelhouse and searched for another boat.

Bob was about sixty-five at the time and he handled that situation solo.

Bob had been skipper of the John J. Harvey from 1963 until it was retired in the early 1990s. When the boat was retired Bob retired too.

But when, in Bob’s words, “a bunch of clowns” bought the boat and restored it, he was lured back for “one fast ride.”

Co-owner Huntley Gill:

“Bob loved the boat but was unsure about “the bunch of clowns” who had bought her. He consented to come for just “one last fast ride” but then stayed and steered her, reunited with his boat in their respective retirements, for the next sixteen years.

It is not possible to overstate the effect he had on us, and the project. He coaxed, ranted, opined, charmed, and amused us season in and season out. His wisdom and judgment saved us from countless errors, and we relied on his profound wisdom, both nautical and diplomatic. Bob was truly one-of-a-kind. It was a rite-of-passage to get yelled at by him; behind the yelling was a fierce love for the fireboat and the people who take care of her.”

Huntley Gill again:

“We, his fireboat family, will miss his mischievous chuckle, his bear hugs, his grunts of displeasure, his knowing smile. We are all diminished by his loss, but so much better for having known him.”

Robert E. Lenney
March 18, 1936 – June 11, 2016

The John J. Harvey can always use a hand, new friends and financial supporters.

And the next time you’re in New York City check the schedule. If the timing is right, you might be able to get a free ride.

More about the John J. Harvey.

– Ken

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