Fast work, courage and luck save Clipper City from Pier 17 fire

On Sat., July 14, a fire broke out on Pier 17, causing the Clipper City schooner crew to hightail it into the harbor. Downtown Express photo by Thomas Butler

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  On Sat., July 14, Circle Line Downtown’s speedboat, Shark, had just dropped off passengers and was moored on the east side of Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport when the crew heard people screaming, “Fire!”

With Captain Michael Pellizzi at the helm, the Shark headed over to Pier 17, where the fire broke out minutes before 4 p.m. Shark deckhands Sean James and Alvin Nasongsong took turns with the boat’s hose, trying to keep the blaze in check until firefighters arrived.

Several minutes before the Shark crew tried to douse the fire, the tourist schooner Clipper City had pulled into its berth on the east side of Pier 17. Capt. Chris van Nes had just officiated at a wedding, whose party was still aboard the boat.

He smelled smoke, he recalled. He disembarked and touched the pier. “It was really hot,” he said. “I decided immediately that we needed to leave.”

When van Nes yelled to get off the pier, a lot of people, reportedly, didn’t pay attention. Clipper City owner Tom Berton — who was at Yankee Stadium at the time and unaware of the blaze until the game ended — said afterward, “He screamed at everybody to get the hell off. He literally pushed people onto the boat.”

In order for Clipper City to depart with its 34 passengers aboard, someone had to stay onshore to cast off the lines. First mate Tim Miller, 29, volunteered. “Someone had to do it,” he said the next day. “I did it without even thinking about it, though I thought afterward, ‘Was I brave or foolish?’”

As soon as Miller had let Clipper City’s lines slip into the water, thick, choking smoke enveloped him. The boat was only eight feet away but he couldn’t see it, nor could anyone on the boat see him. He said he was terrified and thought that he would have to jump into the East River to escape. Then he heard van Nes calling to him that he was coming back to get him.

Through a slight break in the smoke, Miller leapt into the boat and was caught by two other crew members.

Clipper City sped away from the pier to the Atlantic Basin, a man-made cove on the East River opposite Governors Island, where the passengers disembarked. The 158-foot-long boat spent the night there with most of the crew on board.

Fireboats from three different marine companies responded to the three-alarm blaze. Around 140 fire fighters were on the scene. About 500 people were evacuated from the pier, but there were no injuries.

By 5:20 p.m., the fire, which spread more than 100 square feet, was declared under control.

That evening, Berton had heard from senior officials of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, which owns the pier, that Clipper City would be able to return the next day and that the vessel could dock again on Pier 17, just north of its previous berth where the fire occurred.

Berton was grateful. “The Fire Department and the fire boats responded so fast that it was amazing,” he said. “They had to cut large holes in the pier in order to extinguish the fire.”

“It was lucky for the pier and the people on the pier that the wind was blowing from the west,” Berton observed. “It blew the smoke away from the pier toward the water, straight toward Clipper City.”

The fire put the boat at great risk, according to van Nes.

“We made the right decisions and we worked hard and quickly, but we were also lucky,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got away that I thought, ‘I’m glad that went O.K.’ It would have been terrible if it hadn’t gone all right. The only thing I was scared of was that the smoke was so saturated, it looked like it could burst into flame.

“I wanted to get out of there before that happened.”

Berton, owner of Manhattan By Sail, whose boats take tourists around New York Harbor, said he was “really proud” of the Clipper City crew.

The cause of the fire was determined to be faulty electrical wiring under the pier. Department officials said they checked to make sure that it hadn’t been structurally compromised.

Two days later, spokespersons for the Howard Hughes Corporation, which has a long-term lease on the pier, stated that the pier’s underlying structure was sound.

Merchandise in L’Express, a women’s clothing store closest to where the blaze occurred, was damaged by the smoke, but the other businesses along the pier weren’t affected, according to reports. By Saturday evening, the pier had reopened to the public. However, a small portion of the pier remained cordoned off and still smelled of smoke.

“We washed Clipper City down all night and all day,” said Berton the day after the fire, noting that he also had people scrubbing the pier.

Appearing before Community Board 1 the week after the fire, Piazzola said that the Howard Hughes security staff had alerted storeowners to the blaze, but the Pier 17 building lacks a public announcement system to tell employees and customers to evacuate.

Fire safety laws mandating such a system were enacted long after Pier 17 was built (The pier was grandfathered in as not having to meet the new requirements). Piazzola said that, in light of future incidents, Howard Hughes is considering installing a public address system, but he was noncommittal as to whether it would actually happen.

As for the wedding couple, Thomas Butler and Liana Tsenoba, they said they had a great time at their wedding and would have some memorable pictures to show to family and friends when they got back from their honeymoon.

On Sun., July 15, the day after the Pier 17 fire, diners ate at Sequoia on the second tier of the Seaport mall. Below, large holes that the Fire Department had cut in the deck in order to extinguish the fire. The smell of smoke and soot lingered in the air. Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

Pier 17 blaze, round two?
For the second time in less than a week, the F.D.N.Y. had to be summoned to Pier 17.

On Wed., July 18, a security guard noticed smoke on the far south face. “Out of an abundance of caution, the Fire Department was called,” said Michael Piazzola, senior general manager at the Howard Hughes Corporation. “The plug has been de-energized and will be replaced by a licensed electrician.”

A Fire Department spokesperson said that the call came in at 11:13 a.m. Engine 4, Ladder 15; Engine 10, Ladder 10; and Battalion 2 responded with around 40 firefighters. Less than a half hour later, the fire was declared under control.

Piazzola declined to characterize what happened, saying only that it was “a smoke situation.” He said that Howard Hughes intended to inspect the entire electrical system under the pier.