Journal News - August 05, 2019by Rochel Leah Goldblatt, Rockland/Westchester Journal News
UPPER NYACK — A former New York City Fire Department fireboat that served during some of the city's most dramatic moments is getting an "over-hull" in a local shipyard before being relaunched as a museum ship.
The John D. McKean was pulled out of the water last week at North River Shipyard to have its hull repaired and will be there through August. The end goal is to turn the boat into a floating museum.
It’s going to cost, though.
The Fireboat McKean Preservation Project is looking to raise $150,000 by this Sept. 11.
“If we can reach our goal, we could ... be giving boat rides by mid-September,” Fireboat McKean Preservation Project President Tracy Conte said Wednesday while standing feet from the boat's hull. “If our fundraising takes a little bit longer, we may have to complete the repairs in phases, which would then delay us by about a year.”
The fundraising drive has started off strong, with a $10,000 donation from the Steven Siller Tunnels to Towers Foundation. Foundation Chairman and CEO Frank Siller said in a statement that the project seeks to honor the sacrifices made on 9/11.
“It is critical that we all Never Forget,” he said.
A fireboat’s proud history
The McKean — named for a marine engineer fatally burned by steam in a 1953 explosion — spent about 58 years in the waters of Lower Manhattan, serving the island. It was retired in 2010 and auctioned off in 2016.
On 9/11, when people tried to escape the collapsing Twin Towers by jumping into the river, the crew of the McKean responded, rescuing swimmers and ferrying them to safety in New Jersey. The boat then went back to pump water onto fires caused by the collapse.
In 2009, the boat responded to the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight, which landed on the river after a flock of geese stalled the plane’s engine. It was also instrumental in putting out the 1991 fire at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, as well as countless other fires throughout its time in the river.
The boat was there to welcome New York City Marathon runners every year and it helped moor the USS Intrepid. It supervised fireworks barges each New Year's Eve and Fourth of July and even after its retirement, it helped celebrate the opening of the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.
After it was bought at auction by local fisherman and restaurateur Edward Taylor and his partner Michael Kaphan, volunteers began to restore the boat.
Conte said the boat was originally purchased with the intention of making it an extension of the Sleepy Hollow location of Taylor and Kaphan's restaurant Farmer & the Fish, but that was not possible due to zoning. Although most people supported the boat in that area, a handful of neighbors complained that it blocked their view of the river, she said.
In order to preserve a piece of maritime history, they decided instead to start the nonprofit and turn the boat into a museum ship.
Volunteers have worked on maintaining the interior, painting and minor repairs, but they needed to hire a professional crew to do the exterior hull work.
“It's a lot of sweat equity that they've put in,” Conte said. “I think people involved with the boat form an emotional connection to it that stays for generations.”
A father’s legacy
For Conte, this is also about preserving her own history.
Her father, FDNY Lt. Harry Wanamaker, worked on the McKean from 1997 to 2002. He was on the boat during the events of 9/11 and stayed for three straight days to help, and then volunteered for numerous shifts after that, Conte said.
"He would think this was so cool,” Conte said. She said it was full circle for her father, who grew up in Upper Nyack and used to paint the hulls of boats at the same shipyard where the McKean is being restored.
“To be standing here near Hook Mountain and the fireboat he loved so much right here, he would just be in awe,” she said. “He would be down here every day working on this boat, for sure.”
Conte said her father was with the FDNY for 37 years as well as a volunteer firefighter in Upper Nyack. He died in 2010, shortly after the McKean was retired, of 9/11-related cancer. Her mother, Delynne, still lives in the area and is active with fundraising, she said.
“She thinks it’s really special,” Conte said of her mother. “My father was a lifelong volunteer so she just loves the fact that there are passionate people who are equally interested in seeing that this boat has a long future. They put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into getting it this far.”
A couple of weeks before the 9/11 attacks, her father had taken the family out on the McKean for a ride.
“He loved it,” she said. “He'd invite everybody down for visits and boat tours all the time.”
A new home
“It is exciting to see this magnificent vessel hauled out and we hope that we can give her the attention she needs,” Fireboat McKean Preservation Project founder and former president Taylor said in a statement. “The shipyard has been very gracious in working with us to ensure the boat stays afloat.”
While repairs are being made, trustees are also looking for a place the boat can call home.
Conte said they are hoping that it can go to Pier 40 in Manhattan, which is part of the Hudson River Park Trust. But they are also evaluating other options in Rockland and Westchester.
“There are other museum ships as well,” Conte said, noting that the Fire Fighter and John J. Harvey also responded on 9/11 and are open to the public in Manhattan. She said the trustees of the John J. Harvey Fireboat have been helping them set everything up. “We'd like to follow in their footsteps.”
The nonprofit organization is also applying for National Historic Landmark status.
“We want to honor the bravery of all the people who served on the McKean through the years and we want to honor the pretty significant historical events that the boat has participated in,” Conte said.
She said ideally they would like to have volunteers who served on the McKean to tell stories about the boat and their service.
“It would preserve a really important piece of New York City and Hudson River history,” she said. “And even … national history.”