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All aboard the Cotter for a special family reunion

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Members of a family with roots in South Buffalo and with the Buffalo Fire Department gathered Friday aboard the city's vintage fireboat. The tour is intended to not only celebrate the family's heritage but raise awareness that the ship is in need of upgrades.

The Buffalo Fire Museum hosted members of the Tubridy family, whose reunion included the opportunity to ride aboard the Edward M. Cotter, which is moored on the Buffalo River just off the Engine No. 20 House on Ohio Street.

The late John J. Tubridy was Buffalo's Fire Commissioner in the early 1940s. For several years, he captained the fireboat that was known at the time as the William S. Grattan.

"We have a photo, I believe it was taken around 1942 when it was called the Grattan, and he took a bunch of councilmen and dignitaries on the boat," said Dianne Tubridy, who has traveled to Buffalo from Washington, D.C. for the reunion. "It's pretty cool to be on a boat that you heard about all your life growing up."

The fireboat was built in 1900 and originally named for Grattan, Buffalo's first paid fire commissioner. The boat was refit in 1953 and, after being temporarily renamed Firefighter, was re-christened as the Edward M. Cotter, in honor of a Buffalo firefighter and union leader who had recently passed away.

The Edward M. Cotter, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, played a pivotal role in several firefighting and rescue missions in nearby waters. It crossed an international border in 1960 to assist firefighters in Port Colborne, Ontario.

"As far as we know, and nobody has disputed our claims, it is the world's oldest active working fireboat." Ron Endle, vice president, Edward M. Cotter Conservancy.

The ship also proved useful in rescuing another cherished local treasure, the U.S.S. Little Rock. In 1978, the decommissioned naval vessel began taking on water and started to list. The Edward M. Cotter helped pump water out of the Little Rock so that repairs could be made. 

It also endured its own tragedy. While responding to a burning oil barge in 1928, flames engulfed and gutted the fireboat. The crew's chief engineer, Thomas Lynch, died in the fire while seven others were hurt.

The ship is in need of repairs, say members of the Edward M. Cotter Conservancy, and a fundraising campaign is now underway to generate the dollars needed. Ron Endle, the conservancy's vice president, estimated the cost to fix the Cotter at around $300,000.

"It needs new propellors, new screws, the engines need an overhaul," Endle said. "Thanks to the work of the captain and the marine engineer, they're keeping this thing running. But it needs some help."

The Cotter's captain, John Sixt, pointed out that the vessel is the oldest working and active fireboat in the world. Its primary task, though, is breaking up ice in Buffalo River. He credited the Swedish steel installed on the boat for its strength. He also spoke of coveting a position aboard the Cotter when he first joined the Buffalo Fire Department.

"Words can't describe it," Sixt said. "After 21 years being a professional firefighter and holding this position, it's a very unique position to be in. It's an honor and a privilege to serve the city in this way."

It's also, according to Endle, the most economically prudent option for the city to fix and keep the Cotter running. If not for its availability, he explained, the nearest icebreakers would have to come in from Cleveland.

"They would send two icebreakers up here, at a cost of somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 a day, a piece. That's $40,000 a day," Endle said. "On average, this boat goes out 20 times a year during the icebreaking season. If you take that 20 times 40,000, it more than pays for doing the boat a good facelift and getting it ship-shape, so to speak."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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