Featured Letter: A life owed to the Fire Fighter

The view from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn looking out at the burning SS Sea Witch in 1973. (Photo via disasterhx.blogspot.com)

To the editor:

Fire Fighter saved my father’s life, and those of many other men, on the morning of June 2, 1973.

George W. Spears was the 2nd mate on the ill-fated SS Sea Witch that collided with the SS Esso Brussels in the Hudson River underneath the Verrazano Bridge. I was 7 at the time, and didn’t really understand everything that had happened to my father and the SS Sea Witch crew that morning. What I do remember was a phone call that woke us up around 3 a.m. It was my dad, calling from a hospital and telling my mom that he was OK.

He had been rescued, he said, and he owed his life to the men on a fireboat.

When I got home from school that day, dad was there, bruised and still covered in black. What I remember most was the smell on him, that of burning oil and metal. I remember hugging him and hugging him that afternoon as he kept coughing up soot. Friends came by later and I listened as he talked about the living nightmare of the inferno — and how he and others from the SS Sea Witch were saved.

He had run 550 feet to the rear of the ship, with only his underwear on (he had been in bed at the time of the collision and not on duty) and a few possessions. Given the intense flames and smoke, he thought he would die.

But, from somewhere — he believes it was the work of a helicopter — smoke cleared for what was probably only a few seconds. That was when the fireboat was able to spot the men. The boat forged its way to save my dad and his fellow seamen. Not an overly religious man, he could only keep saying that somehow God did intervene that day and allowed those seconds of clarity for the fireboat’s brave crew members to risk their lives to save him. He did lose friends that morning, and when he died in 1988, I know he was still haunted by memories of that horrific morning. I completely owe my dad’s life to the actions of the men of Fire Fighter.

This fireboat represents so much more than a vessel, it encompasses so many decades of history, and so many lives saved.

Janie Spears-Bennorth, Ringwood, N.J.