The John D. McKean fireboat was designed in 1953 by the John H. Wells Inc. Naval Architects and Marine Engineers of New York. The fireboat was constructed by the John H. Mathis Shipbuilding Company of Camden, NJ. The newly built fireboat was named in memory of FDNY marine engineer John D. McKean who was burned by live steam on September 17, 1953, in an explosion aboard the FDNY "George B. McClellan" Fireboat. Although fatally injured, McKean heroically remained at his post, vainly trying to keep the vessel under control. He died five days later.
The John D. McKean fireboat was launched on March 19, 1954 and placed into service in September 1955. The McKean Fireboat was the first fireboat added to the city’s fleet in over 14 years. When the construction of the McKean Fireboat was completed, the McKean fireboat was considered the finest, most advanced fireboat in the world. There were a number of features on the McKean Fireboat that were considered state of the art at the time for fireboat design. For example, the McKean Fireboat was the first fireboat designed with four diesel engines. Two engines were for propulsion (power) and the other two engines for water pumping. This feature provided the McKean Fireboat with a complete separation of propulsion and pumping power for simultaneous maneuvering and firefighting. In designing the McKean Fireboat, consideration was given to the dangers inherent in fire-fighting operations. The propellers are set up into modified tunnels to allow the vessel to enter shallow water and to eliminate the danger of propeller damage due to floating debris. This also permitted the use of larger propellers with a corresponding increase in efficiency. The full form qualifies the McKean to be classed as a sea going vessel.
The McKean Fireboat participated in many calls over its fifty eight years of service on behalf of the NY City Fire Department's Marine unit, most notably, the Staten Island Ferry Terminal Fire in September 1991, the rescue and recovery operations during the terror attacks at the World Trade Center that took place on September 11, 2001 which included taking part in the maritime evacuation of the lower Manhattan seawall, and pumping Hudson River water onto the WTC for three days straight because all hydrant infrastructure had collapsed, and the US Airways “Miracle on the Hudson” Hudson River landing rescue operation that took place in January 2009.
Throughout its tenure it also served numerous ceremonial purposes including:
• Welcoming runners to the NYC Marathon with a water display every year,
• Supervising the annual Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks barge,
• Participating in Fleet Week and the Tall Ships events, and hosting numerous dignitaries.
• Assisting the Intrepid Museum Ship into its mooring,
• Transporting President George Bush from the President’s own Marine One helicopter landing pad on the lower East Side around the tip of Manhattan allowing him to survey the conditions.
After a long distinguished career serving NYC and the northern New Jersey waterfronts, the McKean Fireboat was decommissioned in 2010 and replaced by FDNY Marine Co. 1 "Three Forty Three" Fireboat which honors the 343 NYC firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11/01.
The retired FDNY John D. McKean Fireboat was purchased at a NYC surplus auction in 2016 by a Westchester County based restaurant entrepreneur with a vision to connect the McKean Fireboat with a new restaurant that he was planning to open along the Hudson River waterfront in Westchester County. In 2017 when this option was no longer feasible, recognizing its historical significance and wide following, the restaurant owner donated the John D. McKean Fireboat to a newly formed 501(c)(3) not for profit organization by the name The Fireboat McKean Preservation Project, Inc. d/b/a John McKean Fireboat. Starting in 2018, with small donations made by organization members, generous individuals and several companies, such as the Rust – Oleum Paint Company, work was performed by dedicated and talented skilled volunteers. From the onset to this very day, these volunteers have devoted approximately 25,000 hours of their time to the McKean Fireboat project.
In fall of 2019, temporary repair work was performed on several areas of the ship’s hull. This necessary work was done professionally by North River Ship Yard of Nyack, NY which specializes in large boat repairs. The remaining areas of the hull that weren't worked on in 2019 will have to be addressed as soon as possible due to the fact that the McKean Fireboat is docked in salt water on a regular basis and also is subjected to the harsh winter conditions that are present in the Hudson River. Funding is desperately needed to cover the cost of the remaining hull work and the work required to update the original engines and corresponding parts. The electrical and plumbing systems also need to be repaired and updated.
The McKean Fireboat is now an educational floating classroom ship owned and operated by the volunteer/membership based, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, The Fireboat McKean Preservation Project, Inc., d/b/a John D. McKean Fireboat. For most of the last three years, the Fireboat has been moored at her homeport, the Panco Pier, in Stony Point, NY in Rockland County. For six months in 2021 the McKean Fireboat travelled down the Hudson River and docked at Hudson River Parks' Pier 25 in Tribeca, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center and participated in the 20th anniversary ceremonies of 9/11 including a gathering of boats involved in the “Boat Lift” on the morning of 9/11 and the Blessing of the Ships. This participation was deeply meaningful to retired and active FDNY members and other first responders who visited and shared their stories, and to visitors who came from the NY area as well as from across the country to visit the boat they had read and heard about. The organization has been asked to bring the Fireboat McKean to Pier 25, as well as to visit ports for waterfront events from lower Manhattan up to Albany.
The McKean Fireboat organization's volunteers have been working on the McKean Fireboat on a week-end basis since it was purchased at the NYC auction in 2016, performing various tasks such as maintenance to the mechanical areas of the fireboat and other activities such as painting both the inside and outside areas of the fireboat. Once the repairs included in this funding request, along with the much needed hull work are completed, the McKean Fireboat will have the ability to travel the Hudson River on a regular basis starting from NYC to the south and travel as far north as Albany, making stops along the way at communities that have the ability to accommodate the John D. McKean Fireboat. The organization receives numerous requests for participation in events in communities along the river, and receives visitors and inquiries from people all across the country interested in visiting.
The John D. McKean Fireboat is historically significant under Criterion C in the area of engineering as a highly intact and representative example of the large fireboat-type used in major American harbors. Innovative in design, the vessel was engineered to thwart common problems experienced by earlier FDNY designed fireboats. For this reason, the John D. McKean Fireboat was recently approved to be listed on the State Register for Historic Places (SRHP). The New York State Preservation Office is actively working with our organization to prepare the John D. McKean nomination for submission to the National Parks Service (NPS) with the intent that the fireboat also become listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once the NPS approves the John D. McKean Fireboat's nomination, the McKean Fireboat will be one of only seven fireboats in the nation on this prestigious list.
Write-up and picture courtesy of David Rocco.