SPRING HILL — But for the actions of a handful of brave Coast Guardsmen, the date of April 24, 1943, might be as infamous as Sept. 11, 2001.
On that date, during the height of World War II, a ship loaded with 13,650 tons of explosives — from bombs to ammunition — was ablaze on the New York City waterfront.
Had the burning S.S. El Estero — tied up next to two other munitions ships and a dockside fuel storage depot — exploded, experts say the resulting conflagration could have wiped out half the city's population and buildings.
"It was the greatest man-made disaster in American history that never happened," according to Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian William H. Thiesen.
It's also a pivotal moment in U.S. history that is little known beyond the people living in the environs of New York Harbor.
Thomas Thorne of Spring Hill only recently learned about the near-disaster, and the heroism of his late father, James L. Thorne, of New York. Because of the younger Thorne's research, the elder Thorne this week finally received overdue recognition for his valor
Coast Guard officials posthumously awarded James Thorne the Coast Guard Commendation Medal on Tuesday at an All Hands ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard St. Petersburg Sector.
Thomas Thorne accepted the honor for his father. Among those at the ceremony were James Thorne's only remaining brother, Richard Thorne of Lecanto, who in his 80s, and Thomas' brother, James Thorne of New York.
His search began after his mother, Agnes Thorne, died in 2008, and he inherited her scrapbook album. He couldn't crack the book then because her death was just too fresh and painful.
"I didn't really look at it in depth until this spring," he said.
Thorne came across two letters of commendation to his father, one in 1943 from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker of the Coast Guard and another in 1944 from Coast Guard Commandant R.R. Waesche. Both spoke, in glowing terms, of Thorne's actions during that treacherous day.
"A review of the report of a fire on board a munitions vessel in New York Harbor on 24 April, 1943 discloses that you were one of a number of Coast Guard personnel volunteering for this particularly hazardous duty, fully realizing that a devastating explosion was imminent,'' wrote Waesche.
"You disregarded personal safety in your courageous efforts to accomplish the task and thereby materially aided in removing a hazard which might have resulted in incalculable damage to vessels and harbor facilities," the letter continues.
"Your courageous conduct as a member of the detail which boarded the vessel and helped control and extinguish the fire was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service,'' wrote Admiral Parker.
The words of high praise, however, fail to convey the terrifying events of that day.
According to Thomas' research, the crisis began when an oil slick on the bilge water of the ship caught fire. The Coast Guard was summoned to extinguish it.
On this day before Easter, many guardsmen had gone on scheduled leave. The remaining firefighters dashed to the scene — they were the only traffic going in that direction as people scrambled to get away.
Radio stations blared evacuation notices, "Get out!" Similar announcements were made in movie theaters throughout the vicinity.
On the El Estero, men began tossing drums of fuel into the harbor. Two fireboats — The Firefighter and John J. Harvey — began pouring water into the ship.
"The firemen (on board) would feel the bombs, and the hottest one would get hosed," Thorne said.
As tugs began to pull the El Estero away from its dock, the fire grew in intensity. "The boat got so hot, guys' shoes were beginning to melt," Thorne said, adding that the water was on fire from fuel being dumped from the ship.
Most of the guardsmen were called off, leaving a small detail of volunteers. The remaining men gave their wedding rings, watches and any valuables to those fleeing the conflagration.
Finally, sea water jetting from the fireboats overburdened the vessel, and it began to list. The remaining men were called back as the ship began to slip beneath the flaming water.
"It sunk, and that's what put the fire out," Thorne said.
He was not surprised that his father never spoke of his valor on that day. "Those guys back then, they didn't talk about it," he said.
Thorne remembers hearing his mother mutter once "about something in New York Harbor." Then, reading the letters in the scrapbook, he said, "I started putting two and two together."
Thomas theorizes that little information of the El Estero fire was made available so as not to frighten residents of New York and upper New Jersey, already dealing with harsh war news emanating from around the globe.
He still has questions, some of which might be answered as Thorne pores over his father's total Coast Guard records, presented to Thorne along with his dad's medal this week.
How did the men get off the ship when the harbor was ablaze? How many firefighters were in that small volunteer detail? Did James Thorne enlist? Was he drafted? How old was he and how many years did he serve?
A footnote: Thorne said his research showed that the Coast Guard played a huge role during the fall of the twin towers on 9/11, helping with the evacuation of Manhattan and delivering water to firefighters.
Right in the middle of the fight that day were The Firefighter and John J. Harvey.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]