The rescue of almost 900 passengers and crew from the Staten Island Ferry’s Sandy Ground after an engine room fire Dec. 22, 2022, demonstrated again how quickly the New York Harbor maritime community responds in emergencies.
Just six months after it was delivered by Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc., Panama City, Fla., as the third of three 4,500-passenger Ollis-class ferries, the 330'×70' Sandy Ground was bound from Manhattan to the St. George Terminal on Staten Island with 868 passengers when the fire was reported around 5:18 p.m. and a 911 emergency call came in.
The crew had already injected fire suppressant into the engine spaces, and “our main objective was to secure the vessel and to start getting the passengers offloaded onto other boats,” said FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Frank Leeb at a press conference that evening.
Five New York Police Department vessels headed to the scene and a radio call went out for all available ferries to respond. Tugboats came to help keep the Sandy Ground in position and another ferry moved close to create a lee as wind and waves increased with stormy weather.
Leeb said the decision was made to move passengers onto other ferries “as that was a safer alternative than putting them on to fire or police boats. At that point we had a total of five injuries. Three people were transported to the hospital, all with minor injuries. There were approximately 868 people on board and then an additional 16 crewmembers.”
The fire was brought under control and John Garvey, deputy commissioner and chief of operations for the Staten Island Ferry, credited the Sandy Ground crew for putting it out and making the decision to anchor and call for evacuation instead of proceeding to the terminal. Boats operated by NYC Ferry, Hornblower and New York Waterway responded to assist in the evacuation.
“This was not a lucky event,” Leed said in response to a reporter’s question. “This is years and a long time of preparation and training with the different stakeholders. The crew acted as the crew was supposed to act.”
The Ollis-class ferries are a long-awaited upgrade for the cross-harbor service and entered service in 2022. The first, the SSG Michael H. Ollis, went into service in February 2022. It was WorkBoat’s 2022 Boat of the Year.
In the weeks that followed the ferry fire, city officials offered more details on how the Sandy Ground crew and rescuers conducted the operation. The crew’s immediate response to the fire was to evacuate, close off the engine space, and released 3M Novec 1230 fire protection fluid, a clean agent fire extinguishant, which effectively put the fire out, said Capt. Barry Torrey, assistant commissioner for ferry operations for the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT).
During the incident, Torrey worked with Sandy Ground Capt. Joseph Ajar, and the 15-member crew by cell phone. The fire, he said, was caused by a fuel leak that turned into a machinery space fire. There were no flames and minimal smoke throughout the vessel. The ferry had no propulsion so both anchors were dropped in a channel near Bayonne, N.J., as Ajar radioed for assistance. Police, fire, and Coast Guard vessels arrived along with five tugboats and several small passenger ferries. Another Staten Island ferry stood by.
Evacuating the passengers safely was the main priority. Many were frightened at first because they did not know what was going on. One said she feared the boat would blow up.
Officials decided the safest way to offload people was to use smaller ferries from NYC Ferry (operated by Hornblower) and NY Waterway in bow-to bow-transfers. The 80'×27', 2,600-hp tug Mister Jim from Carver Marine Towing, and the 77'×26', 2,400-hp Charles James from Stasinos Marine LLC, tied up on either side of Sandy Ground, creating a virtual slip that buffered the smaller ferries from wind and waves. The 85' NYC Ferry, River Sprinter, put its bow against the Sandy Ground and tied off. Crew from the Sandy Ground, River Sprinter, and the tugs helped 138 passengers aboard. River Sprinter dropped them at St. George and relayed land-based firefighters to the Sandy Ground.
NY Waterway’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt was standing by and snugged up to the Sandy Ground as soon as there was space. Crews from the ferries and tugs tied things off and guided passengers, almost all wearing lifejackets, aboard the Roosevelt. The decks were at the same height, so passengers could walk from one vessel to the other, rather than step down or jump.
There were still 50 or so people waiting to leave the Sandy Ground as the Roosevelt pulled away. But with the pressure of the tugs and the wind picking up, Sandy Ground’s anchors started to drag. Torrey said to end the transfers and keep the remaining passengers aboard as they raised anchor and tugs eased the big ferry into a slip at the St. George ferry terminal.
The success was the result of constant training with weekly safety drills on the smaller ferries and regular coordination with police, fire, and Coast Guard.
“This is New York Harbor,” Torrey said. “These guys talk to each other regularly on the radio. It’s not the first time in New York Harbor that professional mariners have come together to respond to a rescue without having done that exact event.”