New York – Seymour Wittek, 88, of Ossining, N.Y., a World War II veteran who, with fellow shipmates, extinguished a fire aboard a ship laden with explosives that threatened people and property in New York City in 1943, died in the company of his family on Dec. 30, 2009.
Wittek, a Seaman 2nd Class at the time, and Coast Guard comrades voluntarily boarded the burning S.S. El Estero – a freighter destined to re-supply U.S. troops in the European Theater – which was carrying 1,365 tons of high explosive block buster bombs, depth charges and various other explosives, after it caught fire while moored in Bayonne, N.J., April 24, 1943.
Being the day before Easter, many Coast Guardsmen were preparing to go home on leave. Upon hearing the call that the ship was on fire, 60 members scrambled from barracks rooms to the burning ship. As fire fighting boats approached, the men fed hoses onto the deck of the ship for Coast Guardsmen to fight the smoldering black fires, which heated the munitions aboard with every second that passed.It was too late to scuttle the ship, as the valves were located in the engine room where the fire had started – the fire had to be fought.
The decision was made to tow the boat to Robbins Reef and maintain a 20-man fire party aboard during its journey, as the fire fighting continued into the evening. The ship was safely brought to the reef where it sank, due to the selfless actions of 60 Coast Guardsmen.
The damage that could have taken place would have been nothing short of catastrophic. The explosion of the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, in Halifax Harbor in 1917, which was laden with an almost equal amount of explosives, killed nearly 2,000 people and injured 9,000. Apart from the shock waves created, it also caused tidal waves. Given the size of the bombs aboard the El Estero, and the fact that nearby train cars also carried an estimated 5,000 tons of explosives and ships that were moored nearby were also loaded with munitions, the effects could have devastated Lower Manhattan, Governors Island, parts of Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey.
Wittek was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal, Nov. 11, 2008, by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Robert Papp, at the U.S.S. Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, for his bravery and selfless dedication to save civilians, property, sailors and supplies that directly impacted U.S. forces’ progress in the European Theater, and for epitomizing what many would consider the ethics of a hero and a Coast Guardsman.
Wittek will be buried at the Old Montefiore Cemetery, 121-83 Springfield Blvd., Queens, N.Y., at 12:15 p.m., Dec. 31, 2009.