Seymour Wittek, 88; honored for role in fighting NYC fire

Seymour wittek was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. “Those men really put their lives on the line,’’ he said of his colleagues. Seymour wittek was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. “Those men really put their lives on the line,’’ he said of his colleagues. (Petty Officer Seth Johnson/Us Coast Guard/File 2008)
By Richard Goldstein
New York Times / January 9, 2010

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NEW YORK - Seymour Wittek, a former Coast Guardsman who helped battle a fire that threatened to devastate New York Harbor during World War II, and six decades later gained the recognition he sought for his unit’s heroism, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in the Bronx. Mr. Wittek, who lived in Ossining, N.Y., was 88.

His death was announced by the Coast Guard.

Coast Guardsmen in the New York area during World War II were known derisively to some as subway sailors.

They would ride the subway in their off-duty hours, visiting their dates or heading to Times Square.

On the evening of April 24, 1943, Mr. Wittek was at his Jersey City barracks awaiting a pass and a chance to see his fiancee, Anne Cooperman, in Brooklyn. The next day was Easter Sunday, when he could put aside his chores loading ammunition and bombs onto freighters at the Caven Point pier in Jersey City for shipment to Europe.

Just then, a fire erupted beneath the engine room of an old Panamanian freighter, El Estero, berthed at Caven Point and laden with explosives.

Two ammunition ships and a line of railroad cars packed with munitions were nearby.

More than 5,000 tons of explosives could go off in a chain reaction if the Estero blew up, creating an inferno that might engulf fuel tanks at Bayonne, N.J., and on Staten Island, cripple the nation’s busiest wartime port, and bring catastrophic damage and casualties.

A Coast Guard officer asked for volunteers from the Jersey City barracks to fight the fire, and got 60 of them.

“Nobody looked left, nobody looked right, nobody looked backward,’’ Mr. Wittek recalled in an interview with The New York Times on the 2008 Memorial Day weekend.

“The men that volunteered all stepped forward - immediately.’’

The Guardsmen rushed to the pier aboard trucks and grabbed hoses and axes while New York City fireboats and Coast Guard vessels doused the freighter.

But the fire raged on.

A pair of tugboats finally towed the blazing ship into the harbor, with Mr. Wittek among the Coast Guard volunteers still aboard.

“I was told to leave when we were not too far from shore because they had too many men, they didn’t want to imperil everyone,’’ Mr. Wittek recalled in an interview in June 2008.

“There was a picket boat. I went down a ladder and one of my friends said to me: ‘Seymour, take my wallet. If anything happens, at least they’ll know I was there.’ ’’

Nearly four hours after the fire began, the weight of the water pouring from fireboats sank the Estero.

“We felt that any minute we might be gone, and thank God we got through it safely,’’ Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia told New Yorkers in a radio talk the next day.

Mr. Wittek, a native of the Bronx, married Cooperman seven weeks later, and his Coast Guard buddy who tossed him that wallet was a guest at the wedding.

The Coast Guard awarded medals to the senior officers in the Estero episode.

The enlisted men like Mr. Wittek were honored by the city of Bayonne with a parade and citations, but received no medals from the Coast Guard.

And in the daily rush of war news, the near disaster was soon forgotten.

Mr. Wittek said that he tried long afterward to persuade New York City officials to provide a tribute and that a mention of the Estero had been planned for Veterans Day 2001, but was put aside in light of the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

“All I want is simple recognition of what the Coast Guard did that day,’’ Mr. Wittek told the Times in spring 2008.

Recognition came on Veterans Day 2008 at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan when Vice Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. presented Mr. Wittek with the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for bravery.

The Coast Guard later presented the commendation to at least two other members of Mr. Wittek’s unit, one posthumously.

“Not every act of courage requires you to face bullets,’’ Mr. Wittek remarked on the 2008 Memorial Day weekend.

“Those men really put their lives on the line.’’

Mr. Wittek, who worked in the fur industry after the war, leaves his daughter, Jacqueline Goldstein, of Granite Springs, N.Y.; his son, Alec, of Tenafly, N.J.; three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2007.