Iconic Warship SS Jeremiah O'Brien Sails for New Home After Pier 45 Inferno

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The SS Jeremiah O’Brien docked at the still smoldering Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf on May 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The four-alarm Fisherman’s Wharf fire early Saturday morning spared the historic SS Jeremiah O'Brien warship, but the pier that it has called home for 20 years was not so lucky.

With Pier 45 still smoldering, and one of its warehouses a pile of rubble and ash, the vessel set sail Tuesday afternoon, bound for its new temporary home at Pier 35, San Francisco's cruise ship terminal. That places the historic floating attraction right next to another San Francisco landmark: Pier 39.

Matt Lasher, director of the National Liberty Ship Memorial, the nonprofit group that manages the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, said he hopes the ship will one day return to Pier 45 after the structure has been repaired.

Fire investigators are still conducting interviews, and city officials said Tuesday that the pier is not yet clear enough of debris to allow investigators to inspect the scene.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien docked at the still smoldering Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf on May 26, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The ship, which came to San Francisco in the 1970s, offers tours and programs to locals and tourists alike. And while Lasher said it's a shame the ship lost its home, he's both grateful and amazed it escaped the blaze in one piece.

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"I think it was unbelievable the ship survived," he said, recounting that the fire "looked like a volcano."

Lasher was quick to praise the San Francisco Fire Department's St. Francis fireboat crew, which quelled the flames in the early-morning Memorial Day weekend rescue.

"The fire was so hot it was melting steel" on the pier, Lasher said, adding that if the flames had gotten any closer to the ship, "you would’ve seen the hull, the paint, the structures on the ship start to melt. It could’ve been an explosion or a larger fire."

The ship only had a few crew members aboard to keep watch, not even the skeleton crew needed to launch it to safety. If the firefighters hadn't responded with speed, even "moderate" hull scorches would have damaged it beyond reasonably affordable repair and "spelled the death of the ship," Lasher said.

But for the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, this is just the latest in a long succession of perilous encounters.

A reflection of Pier 35 from a porthole on the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, as the ship prepares to dock at its new temporary home. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The vessel is one of the last remaining, fully functional Liberty ships among the 2,710 that were built and launched during World War II, delivering tanks, airplanes, ammunition, food and medical supplies, Lasher said. She made seven wartime voyages, with destinations as far-flung as Northern Ireland, South America, India and Australia, and it sailed 11 supply runs across the English Channel to Normandy during the 1944 D-Day invasion.

Along the way, the ship cheated death so many times, her crew dubbed her "Lucky O’Brien," Lasher said.

On Saturday, "Lucky O'Brien" beat the odds again.

KQED reporter Marco Siler-Gonzales contributed to this report. 

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