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Rescue at Pea Island.

Station Keeper Richard Etheridge peered from the lookout tower of the Pea Island lifesaving station. Fog swirled around his face, and it was pitch-dark. Huge waves crashed onto the beach, and hurricane-force winds hurled sand and sea spray into the air.

On that night back in October 1896, the worst storm in almost fifty years was battering the North Carolina coast. Moments earlier, one of Etheridge's surfmen, Theodore Meekins, had spotted a faint red glimmer in the distance. Could it have been a flare from a ship in distress?

Etheridge quickly lit a flare and held it high over his head until the flame died out. Then he saw it--a dull red light flickered to the south. That could mean only one thing: shipwreck.

The Keeper of the Station

Rescuing ships in distress was nothing new for Etheridge. He had been keeper of this lifesaving station since 1880. Etheridge had grown up swimming, fishing, and boating on nearby Roanoke Island. He eventually became known as one of the best surfmen and lifesavers in North Carolina. But Etheridge was also known for something else: he was the Life-Saving Service's first African American station chief.

White surfmen refused to work under Etheridge. So Etheridge and the Life-Saving Service recruited a crew of African American rescuers to work with him.

Etheridge's men trained for ten hours a day, seven days a week. They swam in the rough surf and patrolled the beach. They performed life-saving drills and tugged their 1,500-pound surfboat and equipment for miles through the sand. But the wreck on the night of October 1896 put all of the crew's practice to the test.

Rescuing the Wreck

As soon as Etheridge and Meekins spotted the red flare, they woke up the other five surfmen on duty. The crew quickly hitched up a team of mules. Then they pushed and pulled their surfboat and equipment cart down the beach for two miles.

"The storm was raging fearfully," Etheridge later wrote, "and ... the team was often brought to a standstill by the sweeping current." But the crew kept trudging through the knee-deep sand and icy water. Finally, they spotted the wreck.

The schooner E.S. Newman had blown aground 30 yards offshore. The storm had ripped off the ship's sails and demolished her deck. Now the battered ship was rolling and tossing in the surf. All nine of the passengers and crew, including the captain's wife and three-year-old child, were trapped onboard.

"It seemed impossible under such circumstances to render any assistance," Etheridge later wrote.

But unless someone did something soon, the passengers would probably be swept out to sea, die from exposure, or be crushed when the Newman broke apart in the surf. So Etheridge came up with a daring plan.

His men would try to swim to the ship. Meekins and another surfman volunteered for the first attempt. They lashed themselves together with a rope. Then they grabbed one end of a lifesaving line while the rest of the crew held the other end of the line securely to the beach.

Meekins and the other surfman slowly waded farther out into the chilly water. They struggled through the currents and against the undertow in total darkness.

Onboard the Newman, the captain lowered a ladder over the side of the broken ship. Finally the surfmen reached the ship.

"The voice of gladden[ed] hearts greeted the arrival of the station crew," Etheridge later wrote.

One passenger climbed carefully down the ladder. Meekins knotted the end of the rope around him. Slowly they carried him through the churning water to safety. Then two other surfmen headed back to the Newman.

Next, they carried the child to shore. Then they returned to rescue the captain's wife. Again and again, the surfmen took turns swimming in pairs through the sea to the wreck. After six grueling hours, the Newman was destroyed, but all nine passengers were safely onshore.

Life After the Rescue

The captain of the Newman was so grateful that he gave Etheridge and his crew the ship's name board. But for many years, this was the only award that the surfmen received. Pea Island Station was closed in 1947, and everyone seemed to forget the courageous crew.

Finally, in 1996 Etheridge and his men were awarded the Coast Guard's highest honor, the Gold Lifesaving Medal, for their "extreme and heroic daring." One hundred years after the Newman rescue, the men of the Pea Island Station were recognized for what they were--heroes.

Coming to the Crew's Rescue

Kate Burkart, an eighth-grader from North Carolina, helped to "rescue" the Pea Island crew. She wrote letters to her senator and President Clinton. With Coast Guard officer Stephen Rochon and graduate students David Wright and David Zoby, Burkart submitted a report to the Coast Guard about the crew. Their hard work paid off. Burkart was at the Navy Memorial when the Gold Lifesaving Medal was awarded to the Pea Island crew.
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Author:Fern, Tracey E.
Publication:Highlights for Children
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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