2 to Blazes

By Paul Ditzel

T HE WHOOSHING roar when that tanker blew up early that morning jolted us awake. The concussion rocked our quarters at Berth 227 and the flaming glare lit up our bunkroom. At first we were too stunned to move. Then we realized we were facing the firefighting job of our lives." Brainard "Choppy" Gray, pilot of Fireboat 2, Los Angeles Fire Department, in a conversation with the author soon after the June 22, 1947, tankship Markay explosions and fire which killed twelve. It was the worst disaster in the history of Los Angeles Harbor.

The Markay and other historic waterfront fires are being recalled this year (1976) during fiftieth birthday celebrations at Berth 227, Terminal Island, home of Fireboat 2, the oldest city apparatus on active duty and the most popular. Berthed in the shadow of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, Boat 2 attracts more than 40,000 visitors a year. Despite her age, Kenneth W. Burton, editor of the LAFD Firemen's Grapevine, sums up the department's regard for her. "She is The Bride of the Fleet."

For half a century Boat 2 has fought every major waterfront fire in Los Angeles, including the 1945 Todd Shipyard blaze, the 1967 Harbor Grain Terminal fire and the 1972 Star-Kist tuna cannery disaster. For fifty years, Boat 2's mighty guns have sprayed water-fountain welcomes to distinguished visitors and to new ships entering the harbor on maiden voyages.

To stand in Boat 2's pilothouse where pushbuttons and knobs remotely control her propulsion engines and pumps, and to hear and feel their thunderous throbbing and the gushing roar of 13,500 gallons of water a minute surging through her thirteen big nozzles is an experience never forgotten. Boat 2 packs a punch equal to ten fire engines. Her deadliest wallop is form her Big Bertha mounted on top of the pilothouse. That gun's four-inch diameter tip nozzle can shoot 10,000 gallons a minute.

The ninety-nine-foot-long boat was built by the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company at a cost of $214,000. Launched in October 1925, she went into service the following November 27 at a station built for her on the Main Channel. The station, as much as the boat, has become a harbor landmark. There is no more distinctive waterfront building with as much nostalgic appeal as the yellow-shingled wood station with its bunkroom, galley, hose tower and cavernous shed that houses the boat. The building is in remarkably excellent condition. It is hoped some civic-minded group will join in taking an interest in helping to declare the fire station a Los Angeles historical landmark, a fitting tribute indeed if that occurred during the year-long fiftieth birthday celebration.

Before Boat 2, the harbor was short on fire protection. San Pedro and Wilmington were without any when annexed to Los Angeles in 1910. The city rented two nozzle-carrying tugs, the Warrior and the Falcon, from the Wilmington Transportation Company. Fire fighters from land-based companies boarded the tugs when waterfront alarms were sounded. Around World War I, the department put two steam-powered fire engines, including an 1881 Amoskeag still seen in local parades, on a barge. Los Angeles acquired its first fireboat in 1919, stationing it first at the foot of First Street, San Pedro, then moving it to Berth 260, Fish Harbor, where the 2,000-gallons-a-minute boat remained until it was replaced. The boat was sold at auction in 1969.

As she heads into her century of service, Boat 2 sports a bright red and white hull and superstructure, a chocolate-colored deck and stainless steel nozzles. Her two huge reels of hose are covered with snappy red jackets. Boat 2 was not always this glamorous.

I was shocked the first time I saw her. The flagship of the LAFD fleet was dressed in drab camouflage gray left over from World War II when enemy air raids were feared. She looked more like an old navy or coast guard tub than what she was and still is---one of the world's most powerful and practical fireboats. At the entrance of her berth stood a hut where crewmen kept all-night vigils during the was in case the Japanese fleet came up the Main Channel. The hut was still there when I recently paid my fiftieth birthday respects.

Boat 2 has suffered trying times during her life. Her majesty was threatened in 1962 when the city bought a new fireboat and touted it as being more advanced than any fireboat anywhere. The new arrival was welcomed with a parade of boats up the Main Channel. With every fireboat tug that could shoot water and dozens of pleasure boats in escort, the parade and water carnival was one of the most spectacular in waterfront history.

Boat 2 showed class that day. Sure she took a back seat. Sure she was old. Sure the newsmen and TV photographers came to glamorize the sleek newcomer. Nobody paid much attention to Boat 2. But there she was in that parade, still the ship of the line as her Big Bertha and her deck guns and her tower turret---extended to its full forty-two feet---spouted streams higher than any other as she followed her rival to the welcoming ceremonies.

I was aboard the press boat. The mayor's executive assistant told me the day "marked the dawn of a new era in harbor fire protection." Some fire chiefs said the sun was setting on the day of big fireboats. Smaller boats like the new one were more practical, cheaper and better. But the new boat did not stand a chance of nudging Boat 2 off her throne. The newcomer became just another member of the five-boat fleet and, with less pumping capacity, second in status to Boat 2 which could always be depended upon to knock home the big punch when needed.

That very thing happened August 8, 1972, when the General American Transportation Company tank farm exploded and burned. The farm was too far inland for Boat 2 to bring its heavy guns to bear, but this floating pumping station shot 13,500 gallons a minute through a spaghetti-bowl of hose lines that fed land apparatus.

In 1968, Boat 2 seemed doomed to the junkyard. It was not that she was worn out, but that she was too costly to operate. A fireboat is a lot like insurance. You rarely make a claim on it and you hope to keep the annual costs low. But you are glad you paid the when you need help in a hurry. There was no more cost-conscious fire chief in Los Angeles history than Raymond E. Hill. He said that unless costs were cut, Boat 2 would have to go.

Hill and a group of chiefs went to Berth 227 where Captain Warner Lawrence, "A" platoon skipper of the boat for twenty-eight of his more than forty years on the department, was, with other marine fire-fighting experts, determined to figure out a way to save Boat 2. They did. Everybody agreed Boat 2 needed a facelift. By rebuilding her controls they could make the boat more responsive and cheaper to operate. By switching her turret guns to remote control operation, a single fire fighter could operate two guns instead of only one. Cutting the crew from fourteen to eight would save $100,000 a year.

Chief Hill bought the idea. The boat went into drydock, and one year and $238,000 later she came out looking better and operating better than ever. Boat 2 was rechristened the Ralph J. Scott in memory of the fire chief when she was built. But fire-fighting and waterfront traditions die hard and everybody continues to call her Boat 2.

Fires being recalled during birthday celebrations at Boat 2 include the Saint Patrick's Day 1960 one at Matson pier. That blaze resulted in the development of a new type of waterfront fire fighting. After fireboats knock down the main body of wharf fires, scuba-equipped fire fighters leap overboard. Flippering their pontoon-mounted nozzles, they snake hose lines under the wharves to put out pockets of fire that boats cannot reach. LAFD scuba techniques developed by Chief W. W. Johnston and others in the department have become a model for fire departments worldwide.

But no waterfront fire is better remembered than that which erupted with a series of shattering explosions at 2:06 A.M., Sunday, June 22, 1947, when the 10,000-ton tankship Markay blew up in Slip No. 1 at the Shell Oil terminal. Tens of thousands of barrels of blazing butane blend from No. 5 compartment sent up boiling clouds of flame and ugly black smoke.

The explosions tore the Markay in half. Red hot rivets, molten iron fittings and debris spewed high over the caldron and came cascading down upon San Pedro, Wilmington and Terminal Island. A San Pedro housewife called police. She said a Russian bomber had crashed in her backyard. Officers found a hot chunk of twisted iron from the Markay's deck.

Concussions smashed windows for more than a mile away, including those in the Safeway store at Santa Cruz Street and Pacific Avenue where groceries spilled into aisles. With the glare lighting the waterfront, the harbor came alive. Sirens of fire engines converging on the waterfront and bleating whistles of ships were calling crews to make ready to put out to sea. The waterfront had been jittery for eight weeks since the Texas City dock catastrophe, April 16 and 17, when the ammonium nitrate laden SS Grandcamp blew up with a loss of 561 lives.

The Markay was blazing but a short distance up the channel from Boat 2. Acting Captain Jack Gordon and her crew liked to demonstrate how they could cast off in forty-five seconds. They did it in thirty that night. Pilot "Choppy" Gray nosed Boat 2 into the Turning Basin and swung right toward the Markay. Gray was taciturn as fire fighters and seamen often are, but over firehouse coffee he told me what happened. His description was not what you world expect from a man of few words.

"As we pulled out of our berth I saw a fury which I had imagined only an atom bomb could cause. Vivid bellows of flames boiled and churned from the Markay. The fire whipped hundreds of feet into the sky then darkened as it ran out of oxygen, only to burst into renewed frenzy when it sucked in more air. Great gobs of black smoke rolled up into mushroom-shaped clouds.

"A massive blanket of flames was spreading out for 600 feet across the slip and sweeping into wooden wharves under two warehouses. As we got closer the warehouses burst into flames and the fire floated upstream toward other Wilmington warehouses, refineries, chemical plants, shipyards and the U. S. Borax and Chemical Company plant.

"We were within 500 feet when the heat popped three windows in the pilot house and broke all lights on our starboard side. I signaled full speed astern as we looked for a spot to go to work. It was futile to open up on the Markay. We could have pumped the harbor dry and still not put out that tanker fire.

"Our best attack was to hit the wooden wharves and warehouses burning across form the Markay. Within seconds our Big Bertha, tower turret and deck guns were boring into the fire. We made little dent in the flames and gray blisters were swelling on our hull."

More than two dozen pieces of apparatus had joined the battle when Fire Chief John Alderson arrived. Alderson knew the only way to cut off the fire spreading up the slip toward hundreds of millions of dollars worth of industrial property was to send Boat 2 through that sea of flames to attach the fire head-on.

Alderson realized he could be sending the crew of Boat 2 to their deaths. There was, moreover, the fear that fumes from the boat's gasoline-powered engines would ignite, blow up the fireboat and the fire fighters, too.

"It was the toughest decision of my career," Alderson told me after he retired. "But it had to be done. There was no other way."

Aiming Big Bertha and the other guns into the flaming water, they plowed open a channel into the 1,200-foot-long stretch of flames.

"Our first attempt failed," said Gray. "Smoke was so thick I couldn't see the compass. I knew if we got lost we could have crashed into the wharf or the Markay." Boat 2 tried again and Gray rang for full speed ahead. Her guns pushed aside the flames and she disappeared into that smoking inferno. To Captain Gordon and her crew it seemed like an eternity but suddenly Boat 2 burst into the clear, came around and swung her big guns into action against the flaming wharves and warehouses. The fire was checked in a victory fire fighters still describe as, "The night Boat 2 saved Wilmington," an exaggeration, of course, but not to those whose property was saved.

By today's LAFD standards, the crew would have been decorated with the department's highest award, the Medal of Valor. When the Markay burned, such courage was considered a simple matter of duty.

Birthday observances at Boat 2 began last December (1976) with an open house, fireboat and scuba demonstrations and memorabilia displays. Visitors will be especially welcomed this year, but the fire department urges groups to make reservations by calling headquarters at (213) 485-5971 during Monday through Friday business hours.

Los Angeles' birthday present to Boat 2 is a set of seven new diesel engines to replace the twenty-five-year-old gasoline-powered Hall-Scotts. Marine architects have pronounced her fit for at least another quarter of a century. Happy Birthday, Boat 2. I hope I am as spunky as you are when I hit fifty.

This article appeared in the August 1976 issue of WESTWAYS.

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