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Heroes of Life Saving Station 20

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Dec 05, 2018

During a gale on the night of Jan. 20, 1903, the barkentine Abiel Abbott grounded on the bar off what is today Ship Bottom. Within hours, keeper Isaac Truex and his crew from lifesaving station number 20 were on the beach with their equipment, trying to effect a rescue.

The official report reads, “The Lyle gun was quickly placed in position and fired, but the projectile did not quite reach the Abbott, although her crew heard it strike near them. Another shot was fired immediately with a heavier charge of powder and a lighter line. This landed on board the ship, as was stated by the survivors and proved by the fact the life-saving men could not pull it back to the shore, but nevertheless the shipwrecked sailors failed to find it for the reason that it fell amidships or forward, and as they were confined to the extreme after part of the vessel, they could make no search except in their immediate vicinity. The whole hull, except the quarter-deck, was by this time submerged, and the constantly increasing waves were rolling deeply over it. Two more shots were fired out into the darkness, but to no purpose (the wreck being located only by a glimmer of a scarcely perceptible light), and the life-savers were compelled to desist.”

The failure to secure a line to the Abbott meant an attempt to reach them by boat was the only alternative.

“The gale and the sea rapidly gathered force and there was need of haste, but the night was so dark that only the ‘break’ close on the beach could be seen, and conditions were so adverse that no sane man would try to launch a boat before daylight.”

On board the Abbott, second mate Thomas Butler and others had lashed themselves to anything secure as the ship began to break up.

“I suppose it was about 11 o’clock at night when Tim Brandt says: ‘Boys I can’t stand this any longer. I’m a good swimmer and I know the beach is pretty much near under our feet. I’m going to make a dash for it. I think that’s safer than waiting till she breaks up.’

“With that Brandt begins stripping off every stitch he had on him and throwing it away. In about five minutes he says, ‘Well, good-bye fellows, good luck to you’. We says: ‘Good-by Tim, good luck.’ There was no use discouraging him, but of course we knew he hadn’t a chance in the surf with all the spars and planks and stuff floating around between him and the shore.

“The next big wave that came along Tim let go of the lifeline and went with the wave. We never saw him again nor anyone else. One of those heavy spars raised up on a wave and smashed down on him like a big club, and that was the last of Tim Brandt.”

Still on board the ship, Butler continued, “It might have been about midnight when an extra big wave comes over the side and we could feel it ripping the hatch off the cabin. The next thing we knew we were afloat and clear of the ship going up toward the beach, our hatch flying along as if it was shot out of a gun. Then the wave passed and we were sucked back again. Every man of us was on his knees facing to windward, his body lashed to the hatch by the line about his chest, and at the same time hanging on to the coaming (raised area around the hatch) with both hands.”

Clinging to a piece of wreckage, “We would drift nearly up to the beach looking backward over our shoulders to see if it was anywhere nearby and then the undertow would sweep us out to sea again. … Three times that boy Otto Beag was swept overboard. His grip on the hatch coaming was torn away and his lashing to the life line parted by the sweep of the sea. How he got back to us I don’t know.”

Otto told his story.

“I can tell you every time I was washed away, I kept as quiet as I could and swam easy, for I knew the wind would bring the raft after me. I never swam before with rubber boots on, and they are a terrible drag, but when you must swim for life you must, that’s all. I managed to get hold of a piece of spar or a plank every time until I reached the edge again, and then I crawled aboard.”

Unfortunately, not all of the crew had been that lucky. According to Butler, “About this time a big sea washed Mr. Pierce, the first mate, off the hatch. We thought he was all right when he swam over to the topmast that floated near him and threw his arm around it to support himself. As he did so another big wave came up, raised the other end of the top mast high in the air and broke off the spar, which was already cracked, and smashed the loose half of it down across his back. Mr. Pierce sank without a groan. He never knew what killed him. We couldn’t help him, for any one who let go his grip would be swept overboard by the next wave.”

Horace Horner was one of the lifesavers.

“All night we tramped on the beach, fighting the cold and trying to keep from freezing. At daylight we heard cries for help, and saw five men clinging to the cabin top, which had struck the bar and was fastened in the sand. Before dawn the schooner had gone to pieces.”

Also on the beach was Henry Jones.

“When the (life)boat was launched, I thought the chances were ninety-nine in a hundred that it would be smashed. It was a most dangerous time, and I certainly expected to see the lifeboat destroyed.”

Isaac Hawkins, the captain of the Abbott, watched from the floating debris.

“With the mass of wreckage in the water being tossed in all directions, I do not see how the life-savers launched the boat at all, but they did, and even then, they could not get to us. Finally, when the cabin top broke adrift, they launched their boat again when no man could have expected it. I did not think it possible for them to get to us, but somehow, they did, and got us ashore, and I think it a miracle that I am alive to tell this tale. No men could have done more than the life-savers did.”

The official report concluded, “Five now remained desperately clinging to the top of the cabin, praying for daylight. At the first signs of morning the surfmen on the beach detected a faint outcry from seaward, and instantly jumped for the boat. Wreckage filled the surf, which dashed the broken planks and timbers savagely in every direction, and there was hardly a possibility of effecting a launch without destruction. Nevertheless, one crew quickly manned the boat, with two keepers in the stern, while the other crews took their places in the water, one on each side holding the boat and the wreck stuff clear as well as possible, eagerly watching for an opening. The men in the water were compelled to exercise the utmost skill and nimbleness to escape the flying debris, and none were hurt seriously, although several were bruised. Suddenly an opportunity appeared, and the surfboat instantly shot out.”

 But still it wasn’t over.

“The life-savers exerted every effort of strength and skill at their command, but finally had to give up and return to the beach, well worn-out and their boat battered and scarred.

“Scarcely had they landed when the sea wrenched adrift the cabin top, which began to move with the stream of wreckage toward the shore. Again, the surfmen manned the boat, and this time reached the shipwrecked sailors. One was borne on a hatch cover and the other four were still on the top of the cabin. All five were pulled into the surfboat and quickly taken ashore, where Frank Laven, who was seriously injured in the temple, soon breathed his last.”

The survivors were taken to Charles Sexton’s Surf City Hotel to recover.

For their actions that night, Truex and his crew received a letter dated June 4, 1904.

“Transmitted herewith is a gold life-saving medal of honor awarded to you under the provisions of Acts of Congress approved June 20, 1874, and May 4, 1882, in recognition of your heroic conduct on the occasion of the rescue by you and your comrades of five men from the wreck of the barkentine, ‘Abiel Abbott.’”

The first responders of Ship Bottom station number 20 were rightly recognized for their heroic acts, and they would soon inspire a generation, as they were transformed into heroes of literature.

Next Week: Fact becomes fiction.


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