'They said the sea became red with the blood of the Fethard men who perished'
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 20 marks the centenary of one of the greatest sea rescue operations ever undertaken off the Irish coast, at the Keeragh Islands near Fethard.
The tragedy saw nine crewmen of the Fethard on Sea Helen Blake Lifeboat lose their lives while trying to rescue the crew of the Mexico that had gone aground at the treacherous islands. One of the Mexico crew – a Portuguese sailor – died of exposure on the Keeragh Islands on February 21, 1914, as relatives of the marooned men stood on the shore awaiting news, unaware that the bodies of some of the Fethard victims were being washed up at nearby Cullenstown.
Even today the rescue of the 15 surviving crew members of Helen Blake and the Mexico reads like something from a 19th century adventure novel of heroism and tragedy on the seas.
On February 20, 1914 the lives of the people of the small fishing village of Fethard were changed irrevocably. Five young men from the short road to Fethard dock perished after they were flung from the Helen Blake in wild seas that evening. William Bird (36), his uncle Christopher (54); Michael Hanrick (45), Tom Hanrick (39) and Patrick Stafford (54) all perished along with William Banville (33), James Morrissey (38) and Patrick Roche (age unknown). Father of nine Patrick Cullen (37) from Fethard village also died.
The Mexico left the port of Laguna, Mexico, with 481 tonnes of mahogany and cedar logs for Liverpool on November 4, 1913. The schooner's captain Ole Edwin Eriksen of Fredriskland, Norway, described mountain high waves as they reached the Keeragh Islands on the afternoon of February 20, 1914.
Word reached the Fethard crew by 3 pm that a vessel was in difficulty in dangerous seas off the Saltee Islands. Within a half an hour the crew of the Helen Blake had gathered at Fethard port including Richard Bird, who was taking the place of William Banville. At the last minute Mr Banville arrived so 14 men in all set out in strong gales towards the islands.
According to the Helen Blake Board of Trade report, the Fethard lifeboat – which was built in 1905 by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company – was in 'a thoroughly seaworthy condition' on the day. The crew on the 35ft boat were Christopher Bird coxswain; John MacNamara second coxswain; Thomas Handrick, bowman; Michael Handrick, William Bird, James Morrissey, Richard Bird, George Crumpton, Patrick Roche, Garrett Handrick, William Banville, John Kelly, Patrick Cullen, and Patrick Stafford.
One of the survivors, Garrett Handrick said by 5pm on February 20, the Helen Blake was within a few hundred yards of the Keeragh Islands when the boat filled with water. He described three 'terrible waves' – the first filling the boat, the second striking her with terrible force and the third toppled the crew from the vessel.
One eye witness said the sea became red with the blood of the Fethard men who perished on the rocks. Mr Handrick's crew mate John McNamara recalled how he was knocked against the rocks when the boat was smashed and was swirled about in the breakers which proved fatal to so many of his comrades. Once, he had to dodge underneath a portion of the wrecked boat. After being borne backwards and forwards some half-dozen times, he was ultimately caught by one tremendous wave and dashed towards the cliff above the shelf of rocks.
'I put my hands in front to save my head,' he said 'and by doing so managed to break the force of the impact somewhat... The next thing I remember was that I was at the mouth of a little alcove in the cliff, at the end of which a beam of wood had got caught. On my hands and knees with my head bleeding profusely, I managed to clamber on to the wood and get a hold of it. While there I saw several of my mates being swirled about, as I had been, and I am sure that more than one was, by this time, dead or dying.
'Garrett Handrick was one of these that was swept nearest to me. He was about four yards off when I crawled down and caught him by one of the hooks of his lifebelt. With the other hand I grasped a ledge of rock and in that way I held out against a couple of successive waves. Handrick shouted out to me to let him go, and to save myself if I could. I answered – 'I suppose they are all gone now but the two of us, and we will go or come together.'
The men got to the broken wood again and Mr MacNamara rolled his friend over on his side and bruised the water out of him, and he came to after a while.
'From where we were, there were some 12ft of smooth, straight cliff to negotiate in order to get to safety. But fortune was on our side. The air-boxes of the boat were driven into the very cove where we were, and with these and the aid of a piece of rope we clambered to the top. By this time the crew of the Mexico had been taken off by Mr. (George) Crumpton,' who had managed to get ashore.
Mr Handrick described how the men had no shelter all Friday night on the island. They salvaged food from the Mexico wreck before it broke up, but the lack of fresh water lead to the men becoming parched. Rainwater pooling in the alcoves was their only source of water.
By this time 'The Sisters' lifeboat from Kilmore, the Rosslare Fort lifeboat the James Stevens and Wexford 'Tug' were involved in the rescue attempt as news of the tragedy had spread across the county.
Edward Wickham, Coxswain of the Wexford lifeboat, had rescued 151 lives over the 15 years preceding the Helen Blake. On the morning of Saturday, February 21, he left with a full crew on the James Stevens – a 40ft Watson sailing lifeboat fitted with a 6ft wooden and iron keel.
The rescue attempt failed and the lifeboat crews had to wait days before they could get to the island. By this time two of the Mexico crew made off in the lifeboat of the Mexico and were rescued in Cullenstown.
One of the Mexico crew Antonio Lint Da Cunha died from exposure on the Saturday morning. The survivors made a shallow grave on the island and his body was removed on the Tuesday, February 24 by local men and buried in Cill Park cemetery.
By daybreak on Saturday numbers of people gathered on the coast. The storm had abated considerably from the previous evening. It could be seen that the men on the island had erected some sort of shelter with tarpaulins and wood from the wreckage and as nightfall fell the lifeboats had to return to shelter in Dunmore and Waterford. The scene was watched by large crowds from every vantage point along the coast for about six miles. With the aid of glasses it is stated that 12 men could be seen alive on the island, and the same statement was made by spectators at Cullenstown.
It was, however impossible to identify any of them. The lifeboats could be observed standing by awaiting an opportunity of reaching the scene of the wreck. The first definite news as to loss of life was learned about 2 pm on Saturday when four bodies (Christopher Bird, James Morrissey, Pat Roche and Tom Handrick) were washed ashore at Cullenstown.
About an hour later the body of Michael Handrick was found washed in.
The weather worsened on Sunday and at 5 pm that evening, Ned Brien from the Square of Grange suggested that an attempt to establish communication by means of the rocket apparatus.
By this time the last of what little food the men on the island had was consumed and they then had to rely on barnacles and shellfish which clung to the sides of the rocks and which they were only able to gather at the imminent risk of being swept off at any moment.
On Monday morning Ned rowed with the Dunmore East Lifeboat about 200 yards from the island with a small boat in tow. He fired a rocket which reached the island.
He later recalled: 'We slacked the anchor cable so as to let the lifeboat drop in to within 100 yards of the island. We then had two fathoms of water. I then fired the life rocket to the island which dropped short about five yards. I then fired the second, which reached the island. When the second rocket reached the island the men there took the rocket line and with it hauled in a heavier line. They made fast this line to the island and we made fast our small boat to the centre of the line, so that the boat might be kept steady while pulling her ashore. In the small boat we lashed two life-buoys and a life-belt. Then they pulled the small boat towards the island, and just as the boat reached the island she was broken up by heavy seas.'
John MacNamara put on the life buoy and he was pulled through the surf to the Dunmore lifeboat, 100 yards away. John Kelly was rescued in a similar manner.
The Dunmore Lifeboat arrived at 7:30am and along with the Rosslare lifeboat a coordinated rescue operation was launched shortly after dawn.
Two of the Rosslare Fort lifeboat Jem Wickham and bow-man, William Duggan, who were involved in many lifesaving rescues previous to the Helen Blake tragedy, volunteered to 'man' the punt and see if they could rescue the men on the island.
On their second attempt to reach the reef their little craft was badly holed by a sharp spike of rock. They got back to the lifeboat and with great skill and ingenuity managed to plug the hole with a loaf of bread out of the lifeboat's locker and a strip of canvas.
Eventually, the five survivors of the Helen Blake were landed at Fethard and the seven survivors of the Mexico were conveyed to Waterford by the Wexford Harbour tug.'
The rescue was described by one Dunmore lifeboat man as 'the bravest I ever saw'.
'Thus, afterall, in a sense, the Fethard lifeboat's crew did succeed in fulfilling their errand of mercy,' the Trade Company Inspector would later write.
There were scenes of joy and heartbreak in Fethard as the survivors arrived to the shore. Inquests were held in Horgan's licensed premises in Cullenstown for the victims and the Fethard area was never the same again, with so many fishermen dead and wounded.
On April 21 the final victim of the Helen Blake, Patrick Cullen's remains were found by Edward Monahan on the beach at Bannow.
A massive salvage operation was launched to reclaim what was left of the Mexico.
Mexico Captain Ole Ericksen said the accident was completely unavoidable and everything possible was done by the Fethard Lifeboat crew and the Wexford lifeboat men in rendering assistance to his vessel.
'From the time we got on the tug to when we landed, everything was done for our comfort,' he said.
The Inspector praised Edward Wickham and Laurence Busher for their professionalism and courage and reserved special praise for James Wickham and William Duggan who helped bring everyone from the island in six successive trips.
The thrilling story of the Helen Blake and the Mexico was reported around Europe and massive fundraising campaigns were launched, including one by the Wexford People.
The survivors were given £3 each and were suddenly catapulted into the glare of publicity. There were numerous requests from far and wide for relics of the doomed boats. Richard Bird was given a bravery medal from the Norwegian Government which is kept today in his nephew's home in Fethard.