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Issue No. 313 September 27-October 4, 2001

The little fireboat that did

When duty called, nothing could keep the John J. Harvey from its mission—not even retirement

By Sharon Seitz

Seven years after being put out to pasture by the New York City Fire Department, the John J. Harvey fireboat was enjoying a cushy second life as a little-known museum docked at Pier 63 in Chelsea. But when the terrorist attacks decimated the World Trade Center on September 11, the boat proved she still was one of New York's Bravest.

Responding to a Coast Guard call for help, the Harvey ferried 150 people north to safety at Pier 40. Then the fire department—thwarted by the lack of working fire hydrants at ground zero—asked the grande dame if she could once more face the roaring flames. "Everyone was happy to see her out there squirting water again," says John Doswell, a co-owner of the retired fireboat. "They were in tears to see her
back working and saving lives. And we are pleased that the boat was so valuable."

For three days, the John J. Harvey and her volunteer crew assisted the department's two active fireboats, the McKean and the Fire Fighter, funneling what they believe was the only source of water, the Hudson River, to the disaster for the first 36 hours. The Harvey can pump 16,000 to 20,000 gallons of water a minute. "That's the equivalent of 15 [fire] engines drafting water," explained 65-year-old FDNY retiree Bob Lenney, who spent 25 years piloting the Harvey.

Indeed, lower Manhattan's entire waterfront was crucial to the search and rescue. It not only provided water but also offered a safe avenue along which people could be evacuated and supplies could be delivered to the area. "It was kind of like New York was going back to her origins," says another Harvey co-owner, Huntley Gill.

The second-most powerful fireboat to ever serve on the East Coast, the Harvey was launched from Brooklyn's Todd Shipyard in 1931, and she will celebrate her 70th birthday on October 6. She served the Fire Department for 63 years, retiring in 1994. Five years later, eight people bought her at auction for $28,000, restoring the proud vessel and having her successfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. She is maintained by volunteers who offer tours and hold private parties from her berth at the end of West 23rd Street.

For the past year, Lenney has been one of those volunteers, but he hadn't worked a fire with the Harvey in a long time. That changed last week when his firefighter son told him the Harvey had been called back into service; he quickly volunteered to be at the helm of his old friend. "I've always called it my boat," says Lenney, who lives on Long Island. "It was good to see it working."

But with hundreds of firefighters missing and presumed dead, Lenney's reunion has been bittersweet. "It's been some ten days," he says, barely getting the words out. "And it's going to be a long, long time before we get back to any semblance of normalcy. Usually, we have a lot of fun with the boat," he adds, "but this was not fun. This was work."

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