LUIS SINCO / Los Angeles Times

    The Ralph J. Scott, oldest rescue vessel in L.A.'s harbor fleet, will sail into retirement after more than  seven decades of service.  At left, the vintage vessel provides a ceremonial welcome for another ship.

Fireboat, 76,
Headed for Mothballs


    Parts of its hull are no thicker than a potato chip.

    But for 76 years, the Ralph J. Scott --a 99-foot, cigar-shaped boat --has survived mercurial waters, fought devastating fires and overcome modern boat technology.

    But by summer of 2002, the city's granddaddy of rescue vessels will be retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department's harbor fleet, to be replaced by a new boat.  Its retirement home will probably be he Maritime Museum in San Pedro.

    "[The Scott] is old and tired, and maybe it's time to retire, but it's still a most impressive piece of firefighting machinery," said Bill Dahlquist, 71, who piloted the vessel for 17 years until 1992 and who is a boat historian.

    It's not known how many lives or the dollar amount of property the ship as saved.  But the Scott has responded to as many as 150 calls a year, a high number even for a land-based company, Dahlquist said.

    Younger boats became museum pieces well before Scott's caretakers fathomed its retirement.  Also known as "Boat No. 2," it is one of  five fire department boats with the second-oldest having been launched in 1962, said Battalion Chief Louis Roupoli.

    "There has been no downtime for [the Scott]," he said.  "It's used all the time, and it has had to participate in some pretty horrific rescues."

BOAT: Vintage Vessel Soon to Sail Into Retirement

    To know the Scott's history is to get a glimpse into the evolution of the harbor.  As the kind of cargo carried into harbor changed over the decades, the risks faced by the Scott increased, said Doug Moore, a fire engineer.

    When the boat was commissioned in 1925, the harbor had thousands of vessels entering on a yearly basis.  Many were lumber scooners from the Pacific Northwest, said William Lee, excutive director of the Maritime Museum.  At that time, the harbor's wooden wharves streched out 15 miles and were pratically a tinderbox.

    Back then, the historical fire hazards were all wooden-related.  Then came petroleum products, baled cotton and other flammable cargo.  But in the 1960's, supertankers emerged and carried chemicals, including liquefied petroleum gas.

    "Some of these ships [today] are cruising bombs," Roupoli added.  "If one ever blows up, let's just say it could have catastrphic effects."

    In 1976, the Scott had to battle one of the biggest fires in the harbor.  The Sansinena, a Liberian-registered 70,000-ton oil tanker, blew up.  The tanker, which had a 500,000-gallon capacity, had unloaded most of its load of oil before the explosion, officials said.

    By the time the fire was extinguished, nine crewmen had been killed and 50 other people, some onshore, had been injured.  The blast was felt 45 miles away. Flames shot 1,000 feet into the air, and fuel and flaming debris poured from the sky.

    The explosion's power blew a fireboat out of the water: rivets and parts of the boat deck were found a mile away.

    Dahlquist recalled being at the fire station that night when he heard a concussive sound and then saw a huge orange ball in the sky.  On the way to the scene, the Scott's crew helped rescue firefighters who had been blasted into the water. 

    But, Dahlquist said, its main duty was as the primary firefighting machine, working all nine water monitors, dousing the shredded tanker from all sides.  The Scott also tackled fires on the adjacent piers.  After the main fire was extinguished, the boat spent the next days supplying water to other fire crews, Dahlquist said.

    The Sansinena fire showed that the Scott could tackle modern disasters, for the most part.  But even in its greatest moments, there were hints of the boat's limitations.

    The vessel was designed for travel within the Port of Los Angeles, not the open seas, Roupoli said.  And with the harbor expanding into the sea, closer to breakwaters, the Scott is hampered by an inability to navigate well through large swells.

    It is especially susceptible to sinking, he said, because its hull is not compartmentalized.  And because the boat has taken a daily saltwater bath, parts of the hull are about one-eight of an inch thick.

    In 1969, the boat was on the verge of being shelved when Capt. Warner L. Lawrence made a persuasive plea for upgrades taht would keep it on the water.

    The Scott cannot carry more than 250 gallons of firefighting foam, necessary to combat petroleum fires.  Its replacement can carry 6,000 gallons of that foam, said Moore.

    The new boat --a 300-ton tractor tug compared with the 152-ton Scott --boasts several advantages that come with modern technology:  It shoots 31,000 gallons per minute of water and firefighting foam, compared with the Scott's 18,000 gpm: and it has a propulsion system directly under the hull, which allows the boat to practically "turn on a dime," Moore said.

    The water-pumping capacity of the newboat, in fact, may be the strongest of any fireboat in history, Dahlquist said.

   For Dahlquist, the excitement over the new boat --one that "will make people's eyes pop out," he said --is tempered by the Scott's no longer being part of the harbor fleet.

    The retired firefighter reminised about not only the fire rescues, but also the pagentry of welcomeing ships into the harbor.

    That "was as thrilling as fighint the fires", Dahlquist said.  "They'd wake you up at 4:30 in the mornng because a new ship was coming in at 5:30. . . . Away you'd go. You'd try to give 'em a good show. You could barely see with the blanket of water coming down and sometimes you'd throw in sometihing . . . pump all the water to just two of the monitors, 250 feet into the sky."

Los Angeles Times, April, 26, 2001

Copyright 2012 - All Rights Reserved