The Long Blue Line: S.S. El Estero and the Coast Guard’s rescue of New York City (Part 2)

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Rendering of the El Estero fire painted by noted marine artist Austin Dwyer. (Courtesy of Austin Dwyer)

Rendering of the El Estero fire painted by noted marine artist Austin Dwyer. Photo courtesy of Austin Dwyer.

We continue the story of El Estero, the greatest man-made disaster in American history that never happened. To learn what happened first, read Part One.

By 7:00 p.m., the seamen on board El Estero had managed to secure a steel hawser to the ship’s bow and the tugboats began pulling her out into New York Harbor. Meanwhile, the Coast Guardsmen on board the burning ship pushed the cooking fuel drums off the deck. Fuel leaked from some of the ruptured barrels and ignited the water’s surface near the blazing freighter; but the fire fighters had averted the threat of igniting a massive fuel explosion on El Estero’s top side. As the tugboats towed the burning vessel into the harbor, El Estero belched black clouds that could be seen for miles and an orange glow above the boiler room illuminated the smoke. The authorities in New Jersey and New York warned residents by radio and through local air raid wardens to prepare for an explosion and prepared for the detonation.

Illustration from the New York Daily News indicating the potential blast radius had the cargo of the El Estero detonated.

Illustration from the New York Daily News indicating the potential blast radius had the cargo of the El Estero detonated.

Eventually, the convoy of tugboats, fireboats and the El Estero reached the target area and the Coast Guard crew successfully anchored the vessel in 40 feet of water half-a-mile west of the unmanned Robbins Reef Lighthouse. Just past 9:00 p.m., El Estero filled with water and settled to the bottom. The flooded vessel rumbled and belched smoke and steam as she cooled in the cold water of New York Harbor. Meanwhile, floating fuel drums exploded on the water’s surface and fires continued to burn on the ship’s exposed superstructure. By 9:45 p.m., New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia arrived by police launch to inspect the freighter and reported that she was still burning. As Lt. Cmdr. Pfister later described the fire, “It was touch and go at all times.” But by 10:00 p.m., Rear Adm. Parker broadcast by radio the all-clear announcement and by 11:30 p.m., the Fire Fighter and John J. Harvey had finally extinguished the remaining surface fires and returned to their piers.

The next morning, thousands of New Yorkers participated in the annual Easter Day Parade, most not realizing how close they had come to a complete destruction. A few months after the fire, the Navy raised El Estero, towed her out to sea and sank the ammunition laden hulk in deeper water. Had the El Estero detonated and touched off nearby flammables and ammunition, explosives experts believe that Manhattan’s sky scrapers could have suffered severe damage and as many as one million residents would have been affected.

The El Estero fire taught military and civilian authorities the perils of loading live ammunition near a major metropolitan area. Not long after averting the disaster, the Navy began building a weapons depot on a section of rural waterfront property near Sandy Hook, New Jersey. In December, the Navy commissioned Naval Weapons Station Earle, named for former naval ordnance bureau chief, Rear Adm. Ralph Earle, which soon became a hub for the region’s explosives loading operations. The Coast Guard moved the Explosives Loading Detail from Jersey City to Earle when operations began at that facility.

In an unfortunate epilogue to this story, disaster struck a year later at the Navy’s weapons depot at Port Chicago, California, 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. The Navy had located this munitions facility in an isolated area far away from the local population center; however, it failed to implement proper oversight and safety procedures at Port Chicago. In an effort to speed up shipments of munitions to Pacific combat zones, Navy personnel ignored Coast Guard safety guidelines and by-passed the assistance of a Coast Guard Explosives Loading Detail for loading operations. In June 1944, a mishap in the hold of an ammunition ship touched off over 4,600 tons of ammunition, atomizing the ship and a another ammo ship, leveling the loading facility, killing over 300 Navy personnel and seriously wounding 400 more in the area. While not quite as powerful as the Halifax explosion, it was the worst such disaster in U.S. Navy history.

Members of the Coast Guard’s Explosives Loading Detail received special training in the handling, loading, and proper stowage of explosives and ordnance. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Members of the Coast Guard’s Explosives Loading Detail received special training in the handling, loading, and proper stowage of explosives and ordnance. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Early in the war, Coast Guard personnel serving in the New York area became known rather derisively as “subway sailors” and “bathtub sailors,” because many came from the greater New York area. However, New Yorkers would come to recognize the men that fought the El Estero fire as the heroes they truly were. For his efforts, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley received the Legion of Merit Medal and Pfister received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal for his role in fighting the fire. The city of Bayonne threw a parade and huge ceremony recognizing the Coast Guard Ammunition Loading Detail and the city’s firefighters, which included speeches, radio broadcasts and the presentation of specially struck medals to each member of the detail. In addition, some of the detail’s personnel received a letter of citation from Parker. They were members of the long blue line and rescued the city of New York from near destruction.

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