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Historic NYC fireboat becoming Greenport museum

A historic FDNY fire boat from the 1930's

A historic FDNY fire boat from the 1930's is docked at Mitchell Park in Greenport. The boat will be open to the public as a floating museum. (March 23, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

The boat is flecked with rust and virtually unchanged from the day it was launched in 1938. Its most recent purchase price: $250.

But it is rich in history -- so much so that it is a National Historic Landmark -- and last month it chugged into Greenport harbor to assume a new role as a floating museum.

The aptly named Fire Fighter was a fireboat for the FDNY, capable of pumping 20,000 gallons of seawater a minute. A veteran of New York City waterway fires and the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when it and two other FDNY fireboats supplied water to lower Manhattan, the Fire Fighter was retired from active duty in 2010.

The boat is maritime grandeur to its current owners -- a handful of volunteers, led by fireboat museum president Charlie Ritchie of upstate Cold Spring, who bought the boat from the city after years of planning. They are working -- mostly on weekends at a dock in the Mitchell Park Marina -- to restore the boat to its former glory. Offers of help will be accepted.

The Fire Fighter arrived in Greenport on Feb. 10 under its own power, after leaving its home in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

"It's a piece of American history, of New York City history," said Fireboat Fire Fighters Museum vice president Alan Tlusty, 57, of West Milford, N.J.

Other vessels from the era, he said, "are dead. Here, things are working. It's ready to be used. It's of that era -- the World War II era, the Greatest Generation. When the engines are running, people are turning valves, you're there."

"And it's warm," said Mike Hibbard, 30, of Buffalo, the museum's secretary and historian. "It's alive. You can feel the engine, like a heartbeat."

The core group of museum volunteers from the tri-state area had been restoring another ship at Pier 40 in Manhattan when they became friendly with some city firefighters stationed on the dock. The firefighters gave them a heads-up that the Fire Fighter was going to be decommissioned.

The final paperwork, giving title to Ritchie and his group, was signed in October.

The search for an affordable place to dock a 134-foot boat eventually led them to Greenport, after a suggestion by a city firefighter who lived on the East End. In December, the group signed a six-month lease at $200 a month.

Damon Campagna, executive director of the New York City Fire Museum, said he was glad the boat has found a home.

"We all would've loved to have kept it in New York City," he said. But maintenance costs were a concern.

Ritchie's group also makes it clear they need money. The lease is up in June, when they hope to move to another Greenport dock.

Their love for the boat is palpable.

"It brings out the 12-year-old boy in you," Tlusty said.

So, did they fire off the water nozzles on deck? Hibbard admits it was tempting. But . . .

"We were a little hesitant," he said. "If the engines run well, let's not push our luck."


The Fire Fighter


1938: Christened.

1942: Helped battle blaze aboard troop ship USS Lafayette, the converted liner SS Normandie, at Pier 88; nearly crushed when Lafayette capsized.

1973: Helped save 28 crew members and harbor pilot fighting fire after oil tanker SS Esso Brussels and container ship SS Sea Witch collided near Verrazano Bridge.

1974: Awarded American Merchant Marine Seamanship Trophy and Department of Commerce Gallant Ship Award for its service.

1989: Declared a National Historic Landmark.

2001: Responded to the 9/11 attacks.

2010: Retired.

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