SS Panuco Fire – August 18, 1941
Arriving at New York on the 10th of August, 1941 the SS Panuco, a general cargo freighter operated by the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Company bound from Tampico Mexico, tied up at the Baltic Line’s Pier 27 at the foot of Warren Street in Brooklyn.
Heavily laden with a typical wartime mixed cargo that included bee’s wax, copper and lead ingots, arsenic and freshly-hewn bales of hemp, unloading of the Panuco began in earnest on the morning of August 18th with the arrival of a team of 300 longshoremen. With the overstowed bales of hemp coming off first and being stored in stacks on the pier, efforts then shifted to removing and landing dozens of laden oil barrels on the pier and staging them for for export loading back aboard the ship. Making good progress towards the bottom-stowed load of ingots which were consigned to a New York-area buyer, the stevedore crews were preparing to break for lunch shortly before noon when a source of flame, likely a cigarette, set the stacked bales of hemp on the pier alight.
Finding more than enough fuel in the oily bales, the fire spread throughout the entire stack with such speed and ferocity that many nearby and aboard the Panuco thought there had been an explosion on the pier. Many of the stevedores and crew deep within the Panuco’s cargo holds breaking the stow were just being informed of a fire on the pier when the first of several oil barrels, which had been stored next to the now-blazing hemp bales, exploded and coated much of the ship, its fore cargo holds, the pier house and anyone exposed topside on the bow in flaming oil. Further explosions followed as more barrels cooked off, perforating those that had not exploded and causing a large flaming oil slick to spread across the landside portion of Pier 27 which effectively blocked off the only escape route from the inferno.
Barely ten minutes had elapsed from the first report of a fire to the first explosion pealed across the lower harbor to Pier A where the Fire Fighter sat rafted with several other FDNY Marine Unit Fireboats. Quickly realizing the gravity of the situation unfolding across the East River, Fire Fighters’ crew quickly took to their stations and got underway as the Second and Third Alarms were rung up to bring the majority of Brooklyn-based units and the FDNY Marine Fleet to the scene. Crossing the East River and Buttermilk Channel to the sight of a huge pillar of black smoke flecked with numerous explosions erupting from Pier 27, Fire Fighter’s crewmen set about positioning the boat’s monitors to attack the large and rapidly spreading fire. Joined onscene by several other fireboats and harbor tugboats in the effort to quell the fires on the ship and what turned out to be twelve separate fully-loaded barges, Fire Fighter and her crew continued their efforts until being ordered to fall back and redirect her monitors onto the now fully-involved pier house itself.
After a pair of tugboats managed to get lines aboard the Panuco and began dragging the burning ship away from the pier, it became clear that the entire of Pier 27’s house was aflame from front to back and the order was dispatched for all units to begin containment operations. Working in tandem with landside units attacking from Columbia Street, Fire Fighter and her fellow fireboats were able to quickly contain the fire to Pier 27 itself, where it was allowed to burn itself out and was subsequently declared under control at 2pm. Remaining onscene well into the next day supporting recovery efforts and to extinguish hotspots in the smoldering ruins of the pier house, Fire Fighter was soon assigned to guard over the still-burning hulk of the Panuco which had been dragged aground on the Red Hook Flats and left to burn out.
Though she had played a major role in containing the enormous August 18th Pier 27-SS Panuco fire, the disaster had claimed dozens of lives, injured over 60 men and provided a grim portent to the nature of large-scale ship and pier fires that Fire Fighter would have to face in her career.