SS Silver Ash Fire – January 22, 1939

On the bitterly cold night of January 22nd, 1939 the commercial freighter SS Silver Ash sat moored to the Kerr Steamship Line’s 57th Street Pier in Brooklyn, her cargo hatches sealed over a load of mixed general goods bound for Manila and points West. Having completed her onload earlier in the day and slated to depart the following morning, the majority of the Silver Ash’s officers had gone ashore for the evening, leaving roughly 30 crew aboard. Shortly after midnight, engineers standing watch in the Silver Ash’s boiler room heard the unsettling sound of a sharp metal bang and resulting hiss of pressurised fluid being released. Quickly discovering that an oil valve had fractured and was spraying large amounts of oil into the hot engine room, the Silver Ash’s 3rd Engineer led the effort to seal the leak until the oil located an ignition source at 12:40AM.


Image from the January 23, 1939 Brooklyn Eagle, Page 2. Sourced from

The first reports of fire aboard the Silver Ash reached the FDNY Brooklyn Central Office shortly thereafter, which responded in turn by dispatching several ground units as well as the fireboat William Gaynor from her post at Marine 8 at the foot of 37th Street. Finding the Silver Ash smoking heavily from her engine room and with fire already consuming bales of raw rubber held in her after holds, the first firemen onscene were horrified to learn that the ships manifest also listed several dozen barrels of cyanide as being stowed in her flaming hold. Immediately ringing up the second and third alarms to bring additional manpower to the scene to extinguish the fire before it caused the release of the deadly gas, the Brooklyn Central Office also ordered two additional fireboats to the scene.

Receiving her first call to action at a working fire shortly after 1AM on January 23, Fire Fighter immediately departed her berth in Manhattan’s Battery and sped towards the Brooklyn shoreline through patchy ice, arriving on scene shortly after 1:30AM and assumed the lead role in efforts to douse the rapidly advancing flames. Temperatures hovering around 8 degrees above zero frustrated just about every effort to mount an offense on the fire, with heavy icing preventing the safe boarding of the burning ship once she began to list to Port from the weight of the water in her hull.

The danger posed by her toxic cargo, and fears that the Silver Ash would capsize onto the pier led to the order that she be towed away from populated areas into the Upper Bay. Despite the efforts of Fire Fighter, her fellow fireboats, and a pair of tugs, heavy brash ice kept the Silver Ash stuck to her pier where shortly before daybreak her stern settled onto the mud bottom. The threat of a capsize was now diminished and for the first time Fire Fighter’s full pumping capacity was unleashed as she combined her deck monitors and hose lines to drown the Silver Ash’s cargo hold in thousands of gallons of water.


Image from the January 23, 1939 Brooklyn Eagle, Page 2. Sourced from

By dawn on the 23rd, Fire Fighter had successfully eliminated all fire from the Silver Ash’s cargo hold, and with it the threat posed by her cyanide cargo. Unfortunately, the ship’s engine room and crew accommodations continued to burn out of control for several hours more before fires were declared under control. After fourteen straight hours on scene, the ice-coated Fire Fighter and her crew were released to their post. 

Having proven her tremendous capabilities and the quality of her design in her first major working fire, the Fire Fighter returned to her post at Pier A and awaited her next call to action.