Time Ebbs for the Heros Who Saved the Harbor - Thank you to Seymour Wittek and his Coast Guard colleagues, who, on April 24, 1943, voluntarily boarded the burning, munitions laden freighter El Estero to fight an oil fire which started while the ship was docked in Jersey City. Surrounded by other munitions ships and rail cars, the fire on El Estero could have triggered a chain reaction of explosions that would have killed tens of thousands and destroyed vital shipping facilities throughout NY harbor. It didn't, thanks to the action of the Coast Guard volunteers. For an inkling of how bad this might have been, consider the 1917 explosion of a single munitions ship, the Mont-Blanc, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Halifax blast killed 2,000 and obliterated much of the town. An excerpt from the Times captures the courage of that moment in 1943:
An officer announced that he needed volunteers to board the burning ship and man fire hoses. The freighter’s deck and its holds were becoming perilously hot. “Nobody looked left,” Mr. Wittek recalled. “Nobody looked right. Nobody looked backwards. The men that volunteered all stepped forward — immediately.”
About 60 men raced to the pier, joining others who had been on fire watch and were already pouring water on the flames. Standing on the ship’s decks, Seaman Wittek could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes.
The fire was beyond control. In no time, an order came to scuttle the ship. It was
the only way to forestall an explosion. In a race against time, tugboats towed the Estero to deep waters in Upper New York Bay. Coast Guard and New York City fireboats pumped water into the cargo holds. Not quite four hours after catching fire, the Estero sank to the bottom. As she headed toward her death, most of the coast guardsmen were ordered off her, Seaman Wittek among them. Before he climbed down a rope ladder to a small boat bobbing alongside, some of his mates who had to stay a bit longer handed him their wallets. He remembers one man saying to him: “Wittek, if it blows, at least they’ll know I was here.”
No one died.