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S.S. El Estero and The Coast Guard's Rescue of New York City
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG - May 9, 2016

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The terms “Pearl Harbor,” “9-11,” and “Katrina” conjure up disastrous images for many Americans. But, how many have ever heard the name “El Estero”? To New Yorkers in particular, this term should strike a chord. It was the greatest man-made disaster in American history that never happened.

It was spring of 1943, a time when the outcome of World War II remained uncertain. Port facilities around New York Harbor and northern New Jersey stowed convoy vessels to capacity with thousands of troops and millions of tons of war material destined for Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.

At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 24th, the call went out to Jersey City's Coast Guard barracks, “Ammo ship on fire! They want volunteers!” The burning vessel was an antiquated 325-foot Panamanian freighter pressed into wartime service named the El Estero. S.S. El Estero was moored at Bayonne, New Jersey's Caven Point pier to take on a full load of ordnance and ammunition. Members of the Coast Guard's Explosives Loading Detail had just overseen the last load to top off El Estero's holds with 1,365 tons of ordnance, including huge “blockbuster” bombs, depth charges, incendiary bombs, and anti-aircraft and small arms ammunition. At 5:20 p.m., the fire had broken out when a boiler flashback ignited fuel oil floating on bilge water under the engine room. As the heat of the fire grew and smoke billowed into the ship's passageways, the engine room crew armed only with hand–held fire extinguishers gave up the fight and fled the space.

Rendering of the S.S. El Estero fire painted by noted marine artist Austin Dwyer. Photo courtesy of Austin Dwyer. (Image courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Rendering of the S.S. El Estero fire painted by noted marine artist Austin Dwyer. Photo courtesy of Austin Dwyer. (Image courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Everyone at the barracks knew volunteering could result in a fiery death for each of them. Most of them were aware that in 1917 the French ammunition ship Mont Blanc, loaded with 5,000 tons of TNT, blew up in the harbor of the small city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The cataclysm instantly killed 1,500 residents, wounding 9,000 more and leveling a large part of the city. It was the largest man-made explosion in history prior to the atomic bomb blast witnessed at Hiroshima.

The Coast Guard seamen also knew that the potential for a disaster in New York Harbor was far deadlier than Halifax, with an explosive force that could obliterate the port, portions of New Jersey and New York City and hundreds of thousands of residents. Two nearly full ammunition ships, flying the red Baker flag for “hot,” were moored near El Estero and a line of railroad cars on the pier held an additional shipment of hundreds of tons of munitions for a total of over 5,000 tons of explosives. Add to this the nearby fuel storage tank farms at Bayonne and Staten Island and obliteration appeared likely for the nation's largest population center, including swaths of Jersey City, Bayonne, Staten Island and New York City.

Soon after the smoke began wafting out of El Estero, officer-in-charge Lt. j.g. Francis McCausland had arrived on scene. He sent out the call to the Coast Guard barracks and signaled two tugs to move the other munitions ships away from El Estero. He also helped organize initial firefighting efforts with over a dozen Coast Guardsmen already working on the pier. Meanwhile, Army soldiers responsible for the railroad shipment moved the ammunition boxcars off the pier. By 5:35 p.m., two ladder trucks and three pumpers from the Jersey City Fire Department arrived as did two 30-foot Coast Guard fireboats, which all began pouring water into the smoking vessel. Shortly thereafter, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary mobilized and lieutenant commanders John Stanley and Arthur Pfister arrived by fast boat from the Coast Guard Captain-of-the-Port office, located near the Battery, and took command of operations. Pfister, a retired battalion fire chief in New York City and officer-in-charge of Coast Guard fireboats, assumed overall responsibility for firefighting activities; while Stanley focused his attention on operations within El Estero. It was Stanley's first day on the job!

A member of an Explosives Loading Detail monitors the loading of high explosives and the work of carpenters as they construct the bombs’ wooden framework in the ship’s hold. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
A member of an Explosives Loading Detail monitors the loading of high explosives and the work of carpenters as they construct the bombs' wooden framework in the ship's hold. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The timing of the call to the Coast Guard barracks could not have been worse. Saturday the 24th was the day before Easter and members of the Explosives Loading Detail had been anticipating liberty for quite some time. They had donned their dress blues and pea coats and many had just finished shining their shoes. But when the call came down for volunteers, sixty Coast Guardsmen stepped forward, eager to fight the fire. The men scrambled for the barracks door and two waiting trucks. Witnesses described the scene in almost comical terms with twenty dressed-up servicemen climbing into a pick-up truck designed for no more than ten while the other forty clutched any open space available on a larger military truck. With men hanging from cabs and riding fenders, while red lights flashed and horns blared, the trucks sped down the eight-mile stretch of road to the waterfront, passing longshoremen and dock workers fleeing in the opposite direction to escape the fire. The trucks screeched to a halt at the pier and the men hustled to the burning ship to join their shipmates already fighting the fire.

By 6:30 p.m., New York City fireboat John J. Harvey and the City's new mammoth firefighting boat Fire Fighter arrived on scene and ran dozens of high-pressure hoses into El Estero for the Coast Guardsmen to douse the burning vessel. The New York City fireboats pumped a tremendous volume of water on board, but the oil fire still gained ground. The flames escaped through El Estero's skylights, hatches and scoop-like ventilators while the heat cooked deck plates, blistered paint and scorched the soles of the seamen's once-shiny shoes. The fire's intensity spread the conflagration from the bilges to all flammable surfaces, including the extensive wooden framework and staging designed to encase the ammunition and secure it in the hold. As one Coast Guard seaman remarked, “It was one hot fire!”

During the early stages of the firefighting, two of these water jet propelled 30-foot fireboats arrived at the El Estero, and began pouring water into the ammo ship along with local fire trucks and pier-side fire hoses. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

During the early stages of the firefighting, two of these water jet propelled 30-foot fireboats arrived at the El Estero, and began pouring water into the ammo ship along with local fire trucks and pier-side fire hoses. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
During the early stages of the firefighting, two of these water jet propelled 30-foot fireboats arrived at the El Estero, and began pouring water into the ammo ship along with local fire trucks and pier-side fire hoses. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Pfister noticed that the fire's black smoke began to show yellowish-white streaks indicating that water from the hoses, fireboats and local fire trucks had begun to reach the fire's source. But the danger of catastrophic explosion was far from over and in fact had only just begun as the smoke returned to its oily black consistency. On Stanley's recommendation, the Coast Guard Commander of the Third District and New York's Captain of the Port, Rear Adm. Stanley Parker, ordered El Estero scuttled. But it was too late for that. The seacocks and overboard discharge valves used to flood the ship were located in the engine room underneath the intense blaze.

El Estero's bombs, explosives and ammunition grew hotter by the minute. Oil fires must be fought with chemicals, but the fire's smoke and flames were far too dense to allow the application of chemicals to the source of the conflagration. All the seamen could do was cool the ammunition with water, flood the ship's holds as fast as possible and try to extinguish the fire later with chemicals if water failed to work. McCausland had led firefighting efforts inside the ship and suffered injuries, burns and smoke inhalation after rescuing a man in the hold. He was evacuated to the local hospital where he recovered for the next three weeks.

El Estero's deck cargo proved as dangerous as that stowed in the holds. Anti-aircraft ammunition for the ship's deck guns was located perilously close to the blistering decks. The Coast Guard's fire fighters broke open the ammunition lockers and slid the hot ammunition ready boxes down a greased plank to the pier below. In addition, numerous drums of high-octane fuel sat stacked on the ship's deck. But the men left the barrels on deck because El Estero had to be towed away from the waterfront to prevent the pier, stored ammunition and local fuel storage tanks from going up in smoke. Stanley and tugboat skipper Ole Ericksen quickly examined harbor charts and selected an anchorage for the ship in the Upper Harbor.

Once Coast Guard officials made the decision to move El Estero, Stanley asked 20 volunteers to stay on board with him and Pfister to fight the fire during the transit to the Upper Harbor. Far more men volunteered than the number necessary, and many had to be ordered off. A seaman about to be married volunteered to stay on board, but the ranking boatswain's mate yelled, “You're getting married in a few weeks. Now get the hell off!”

At this stage of the firefighting effort, the chances of survival for those staying on board El Estero seemed slim indeed, and the men that remained passed their watches, wallets and personal effects to their departing shipmates.

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. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Author)
Illustration from the New York Daily News indicating the potential blast radius had the cargo of the El Estero detonated. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

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.

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.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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