Retired FDNY fireboat to open as a floating museum

A fireboat that took part in some of New York City's most high-profile response and rescue efforts is about to open to the public as a floating testament to history.

The John D. McKean, named for Marine Engineer John D. McKean, who was burned in a gas explosion on another fireboat, went into service in 1955. In 2001, it played a major role in the response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The firefighters assigned to Marine 1, who worked on the McKean that day, and in the weeks that followed, have vivid memories.

"We could see a big hole in one of the twin towers, and we responded immediately," retired firefighter Greg Woods said. "On the way down, we could see things dropping from the building. At first, I thought it was debris but one of the other firefighters told me, 'That's people jumping.'"

"We were able to set up and help civilians and prepare to pump water," said Jimmy Briordy, an engineer on the McKean.

The men remember a chaotic scene after the first tower was hit and then fell, spewing thick dust everywhere, sending people running towards the water.

"It was very chaotic, it was the most people I've ever seen in a panicked mode, they were running down the dock," Woods said. "There was a daycare center right there — the people in the daycare were handing down babies, we were taking the babies and putting them inside on the couches."

That morning, the McKean evacuated about 100 people from Lower Manhattan to New Jersey. Then it went back and got to work pumping water to the pile.

"The building had come down and destroyed the water supply, so we were the only water supply," Briordy said. "Us and the other fireboats, for three or four days."

Active FDNY Lt. Billy Ryan was working on the pile and benefitted from that water.

"There was no water on the fire because the water mains were broken and we were going across high beams, which were like melt-your-boots-hot," Ryan said.

He said that after many long hours, a hose from the McKean made its way to Ryan and his colleagues.

"We'd be dead without it, four of us would be dead without it, without a doubt," Ryan said.

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The boat, which can pump 19,000 gallons of water a minute, was taken out of service in 2010 and purchased at auction in 2016. Two years later, the nonprofit Fireboat McKean Preservation Project was formed and began restoring the boat.

"It's just a piece of New York City history — New York history, so I figured, don't let it go to the junkyard, so we brought it back to life," said Miguel Valle, who had helped head up the restoration with the nonprofit.

Soon the public will get to experience the McKean's history first hand when the boat opens for tours on Pier 25 along the Hudson River in Tribeca in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

"People start to forget, and something like this, a museum, just keeps alive the memories,"  Valle said. "Especially for all the families that lost people."

Tracy Conte's family is one of those. Her father, Harry Wanamaker, was a 37-year FDNY veteran who served with Marine 1 on the McKean on 9/11. She now heads up the nonprofit and said the boat has special memories for people dating back generations.

"I heard from an 85-year-old woman whose father was the designer of this boat," she said. "So people who touch this boat in any way, it kind of leaves a mark on their heart."

The goal is for the McKean to be open to the public for at least a week around 9/11 on a donation basis. The idea is that some of the firefighters who spent time onboard the ship will be there to walk visitors through some of their experiences.

Fireboat John D. McKean | Pier 25, Hudson River Park, New York, N.Y. |