By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker
The 75-foot Curtis Randolph is an impressive steel hull fireboat capable of pumping 11,000 gallons of water per minute and is a key resource for protecting high-rise and industrial buildings along the Detroit River.
But past budget cuts and neglect have often left the vessel in a precarious position, and the boat was inoperable for much of 2006 because Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration wouldn’t make needed repairs.
The vessel, which was named after Detroit’s first African American firefighter to die in the line of duty, is a vital resource that can perform rescues and has powerful pumps that can extinguish blazes on tankers, the Ambassador Bridge, and Marathon Oil, and can feed up to 16 fire engines with water when hydrants fail or are unavailable.
Under the current fire administration, the boat has been better maintained and this week was sent to its home for the winter at the Coast Guard facility just east of where the Detroit Riverwalk ends. Firefighters invited me along for the ride.
The boat only operates for about six months of the year, even though it’s capable of plowing through ice and running year-round. But budget restrictions have made that impossible.
The vessel has bulldozed through 18 inches of ice in the past, fireboat Capt. Martin Tighe told me.
In 1974, Congress began requiring local governments to provide fire protection on local waterways, taking the role from the U.S. Coast Guard.
The $1.6 million boat was built in 1979 with federal funds, replacing the steam-powered John Kendell, which demanded five firefighters to stoke the engines and another five to extinguish fires.
By contrast, the Curtis Randolph only needs a crew of two – a captain and a deckhand. The city has three crews, but one of the beloved captains, Walter Szelag, died of a heart attack while on duty during the last day of the boat’s season on Nov. 20.
The vessel, which travels up to 19 knots, is the only Class A boat between Chicago and Cleveland and even fought a hotel fire in Windsor.
For Capt. Tighe, it’s a dream come true to operate the Curtis Randolph.
At 17, he began working as a dishwasher on one of the Boblo boats and worked his way up to a deckhand before working on freighters.
“I have an affinity for rivers,” he said.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.