(Editor’s note: In this latest installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome to The Rap Sheet novelist Gabriel Cohen. A resident of Brooklyn, New York, he has written for The New York Times, Poets & Writers, the New York Post magazine, and assorted other publications. His first novel, Red Hook (2001), was nominated for an Edgar Award, and he has since penned three more featuring Brooklyn South homicide detective Jack Leightner. The newest of those is The Ninth Step, which was released last month by Minotaur Books. In the essay below, Cohen recalls some of the genuine historical incidents that inspired The Ninth Step.)
A few years back, when I was working on a waterfront article for The New York Times, I took a boat tour of little-known spots in New York Harbor. A brief note in the accompanying leaflet mentioned that the El Estero, a munitions ship packed with millions of pounds of explosives (and docked next to other similarly laden ships), caught fire there back in 1943. It casually noted that “An explosion would have destroyed Jersey City, Bayonne, northern Staten Island, and much of lower Manhattan.”
My jaw dropped--I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this incident. When I began to research the story, I discovered that my beloved city had very narrowly escaped what could have been the worst disaster in human history. Next to the ships crammed with explosives stood railroad cars, also full of bombs. And one of the biggest oil refineries in America was just a stone’s throw away. What’s more, the harbor was crammed with a convoy of warships ready to head out the next day to the European theater of World War II. If the El Estero had exploded, the resulting blast would have sent a shock wave out across the harbor, killing hundreds of thousands of people and smashing those ships, and possibly even changing the course of the war (because of all those munitions that would never have arrived).
Like all Americans, and especially all New Yorkers, I can never forget what happened here on September 11, 2001. I breathed the ash in the air that terrible morning, and tried to donate blood. And I felt awed and humbled by the courage of the first responders who rushed into those burning towers when everyone else was fleeing.
Now I was learning that a similar act of incredible heroism had taken place here 58 years earlier. A small band of young Coast Guard crewmen was charged with supervising the dangerous loading of the munitions ships. When the fire broke out, they were in their barracks getting ready to go on Easter leave. As sirens began to blare, their commander asked for volunteers to fight the fire. A number of them immediately jumped on a truck and headed for the harbor.
Later on, I traveled up to Ossining, New York, and interviewed Seymour Wittek, an 88-year-old former Coastie who had been one of those astonishingly brave youngsters. Along with a few longshoremen and the crews of a couple of local fireboats, they boarded the burning ship. The blaze was down in the engine room; Wittek told me that they could feel its heat in the soles of their shoes as they raced across the upper deck. Those boys were not naïve: they had been solemnly warned of the danger of such a fire, and told of a massive explosion that had happened under similar conditions in Halifax, Nova Scotia, back in 1917. (It sent railroad cars flying more than a mile through the air.) Even so, they stayed to fight when others would have run.
(If you’re wondering, as I did, why you’ve never heard of this incident, there may be a couple of reasons. First of all, unlike 9/11, it was a disaster that didn’t happen. Second, it occurred during the middle of a war, and the U.S. Navy was understandably wary of releasing information about the vulnerability of such an important port.)
I was deeply moved by the story, and thought it would make a terrific scene for one of my novels. I write about a Brooklyn South homicide detective named Jack Leightner. Jack grew up in Red Hook, a neighborhood right on the waterfront, and his father was a longshoreman. As I was dreaming up the plot of The Ninth Step, the fourth novel in the series, it occurred to me that it would be exciting to place Jack’s father aboard the burning El Estero.
That wasn’t the only true story that made it into my new novel. Throughout his life, my detective protagonist has been profoundly influenced by the murder of his younger brother back in the 1960s. I decided to revisit that story in The Ninth Step, and once again I began to research the real background. 1965 was an amazingly eventful year: civil-rights activists were sprayed with fire hoses down in Selma, Alabama, college kids burned draft cards in Berkeley, and Watts went up in flames. An astronaut took the first walk out into the black void of space, and the first U.S. combat troops sailed off to Vietnam. Locally, the world’s fair took place in Flushing Meadows, the Beatles rocked Shea Stadium, and Malcolm X was assassinated up in Washington Heights.
And Red Hook? I interviewed natives about what life was like on their streets that year. I learned about youth gangs such as the Black Chaplains and the Kane Street Midgets, how to make a homemade “zip gun,” and how the local Mafia capos essentially replaced cops and politicians in the running of the neighborhood. I heard about Armando the Dwarf, who guarded the entrance to the Gallo brothers’ headquarters, and about “Leo,” the mangy lion they kept in their basement to intimidate victims of their loan-sharking operation. That may sound funny, but I also heard first-hand about the pain and suffering those mobsters wreaked on their fellow citizens.
Last but definitely not least, I included a real story even closer to home. In all of the books in my series I’ve loved to explore genuine Brooklyn neighborhoods and real ethnic communities. I live just several blocks away from an area known as Little Pakistan. As I began to explore the neighborhood, I learned that its population had dropped by almost half after 9/11. Why? That seemed like an interesting mystery. As I dug deeper, I learned about overzealous government raids back in those panicky days, and of disturbing events that occurred at a detention center in nearby Sunset Park. I felt a powerful sense of chagrin and sadness about the mistreatment of a lot of my neighbors.
All too often, research can weigh down a novel, sitting in the reader’s stomach like undigested food. But what all of the events above have in common is that they’re heavily freighted with some of the deepest human emotions: fear, shame, awe, and courage. My challenge was to weave the real incidents into the histories of my fictional characters, but--above all--it was to take the emotions I felt when I learned about them, and to transplant those into my characters’ hearts.