NW 50th anniversary: One of Coast Guard’s greatest sea tragedies

Survivors Gather for 50th Anniversary of one of the COast Guard’s  Greatest Sea Tragedy
— On a stormy night in January 1961, Coast Guard rescuers risked everything so that others might live
By Erika Weisensee

High atop the rocky cliffs of Cape Disappointment, at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center near Ilwaco, Wash., survivors of a sea tragedy gazed out upon the Columbia River Bar on Sunday, January 9th, and recalled the events of a day they will never forget. U.S. Coast Guard veteran Darrell Murray, 76, was at the Cape on Sunday, to memorialize the 50th Anniversary of a day that still haunts him. Two other survivors of the Mermaid-Triumph Incident, Gordon Huggins and Acie Maxwell, also attended Sunday’s memorial.

While seven men lost their lives on January 11, 1961, more than a dozen lived to tell about the harrowing events that took the lives of their comrades and forever linked them to each other. The accident is still considered one of the worst in Coast Guard history. Only the survivors really know what it was like that night—many of them have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In 1961, there were two Coast Guard stations located near the Columbia River Bar—Cape Disappointment on the Washington Side of the Columbia River and Point Adams, located a few miles upriver on the Oregon side of the river.

When the call came in to the Cape Disappointment Lifeboat Station at around 4:15 p.m., Murray, a 26-year-old First Class Boatswain’s Mate, was the senior man on duty.

The Mermaid, a 38-foot crab boat, had lost its rudder and was drifting dangerously toward the Columbia River Bar. The boat was owned and operated by two brothers from Ilwaco, Bert and Stanley Bergman.

At the time of the call, Doyle Porter, the officer in charge of Cape D, was at Long Beach Hospital where his wife was giving birth to their second child. Murray wasted no time in launching the station’s 40-foot patrol boat (40564) and a 36-foot motor lifeboat (36454). The 36-footer was a sturdy and reliable surfboat, but much slower than the 40-footer, so Murray chose to have it follow.

Before the crews departed, Murray made contact with the National Weather Service to check on the evening’s forecast. He asked if the weather service had any information that indicated worsening conditions, but they predicted nothing unusual.

At the time of the call, the weather was not particularly bad for that time of year, but the prediction was already wrong. Winds were blowing out of the south-southwest at 40 to 46 mph, with swells on the bar of 8 to 15 feet. Nonetheless, Murray and the others considered it a routine rescue operation.

After the weather check, Murray and his two crewmen, seaman Acie Maxwell and engineman Terrence “Terry” Lowe, departed just five minutes after the call came in. Larry Edwards would captain the 36-footer, with crewmen Brian Johnson and James Croker assisting.

When Murray crossed the bar, the waves were “poppin” and swells were between 17 to 20 feet. The men in the lookout at Cape D told Murray that the Mermaid had dropped its anchor near buoys 12 and 14, inside the river’s entrance, and was dragging anchor toward the bar. But when Murray arrived at that location, the Mermaid was nowhere in sight. It was becoming dark and visibility was worsening by the minute.

Murray did not have direct radio communication with the Bergman brothers, so it took him several minutes to locate the Mermaid. He was finally able to spot the Mermaid with assistance from the captain of another nearby fishing boat.

At approximately 5 p.m., the men on the 40-footer passed a line to the Mermaid and took her in tow. The slower 36-footer arrived on the scene for back up. Murray noticed that the weather was getting worse. The waves were thrashing violently, as if a giant eggbeater were stirring the sea.

Back at the station, Doyle Porter returned from the hospital and took control of the rescue operation. Porter and Murray discussed the situation and decided to call the Point Adams Lifeboat and request assistance from the 52-foot motor lifeboat Triumph (52301), the strongest of all the Coast Guard’s lifeboats.

With the Mermaid successfully harnessed and in tow, Murray and his crew headed to the vicinity of buoy 1 to wait for the arrival of the Triumph. Edwards and his crew followed in the 36-footer.

When the call came in to Point Adams, 21-year-old Gordon Huggins, a 3rd Class Engineman, was finishing up a full day in the shop, cleaning and tuning up engines. Huggins had been in the Coast Guard for five years, but he had only been at Point Adams for a few weeks.

In fact, Huggins was scheduled to go off duty that evening but he wanted more experience on the bar, so he approached Larry Frederickson, a veteran engineman, and asked if he could take his place on the Triumph. Like Huggins, Mark Hoban and Gordon Sussex also sought more experience and volunteered to replace two other senior men. The new guys joined three veterans—Coxswain John Culp, 1st Class Engineman Joseph Petrin, and Seaman Ralph Mace. Though the crew was young, 31-year-old Culp was a “thoroughly seasoned” coxswain.

At 5:05 p.m., the Triumph departed Point Adams. By the time it reached buoy 10, just inside the river’s mouth, the breakers were between 20 and 35 feet. Culp ordered his crew to put on their life jackets, though they left the leg straps loose for better mobility.

The boat ascended the steep swells, then plunged into the trough of the surf. Though their adrenaline was pumping, the men were focused on their work. “We were heading out there to do our jobs, to save lives,” Huggins said. “We weren’t worried about our own.”

A few minutes into the mission, Sussex got seasick. Culp sent him downstairs to rest in the forward compartment. Not long after, blood started gushing from Huggins’ nose. Culp told him to go downstairs until the bleeding stopped. Huggins went to the aft compartment and applied pressure to his nose.

At 7:15 p.m., the Triumph finally arrived at the scene. Murray and his crew on the 40-footer had been towing the Mermaid continuously for two and a half hours, with Edwards and the crew of the 36-footer standing by for back up.

With orders to head back in, Murray left the Mermaid in the hands of the Triumph. He aimed for the bar, and the 36-footer followed. The weather was now so bad that the boats weren’t able to see each other, and their radios were soaked with seawater.

On the Triumph, Huggins, who was still in the aft compartment, could hear the sound of the reel as the crew pulled the towline out to the Mermaid. Culp managed to hook to the Mermaid at 7:27 p.m., but the towline broke a short while later.

Meanwhile, on the 40-footer, Murray had arrived near the bar and decided to continue, but he was struggling in the darkness, with low visibility and the pounding surf. Neither Murray nor Lowe had their lifejackets on because it was easier to work without them. Maxwell, however, was standing outside wearing his life jacket.

At about 7:50 p.m., Murray approached the bar near buoy 7. As he did, he negotiated two large swells. Then, he caught sight of the largest breaker he had ever seen.

The enormous wave started breaking just as it caught up with the stern. The breaker lifted the 40-footer’s stern and rocketed the vessel forward like a surfboard in a heavy surf, forcing the boat into the back of another breaker. The bow dug in, the stern was thrown in the air, and the vessel twisted and capsized. Before they flipped, Murray grabbed his life jacket and slipped it on.

In an instant, the 40-footer became a death trap. Murray and Lowe were imprisoned in the frigid darkness of the overturned hull. Maxwell, who was on deck, jumped over the side when he felt the boat flipping.

Lowe felt his way around the wiring, found the door, and escaped. When he surfaced, he heard Maxwell shouting for him and followed the sound of his voice to the overturned boat. Lowe and Maxwell held on to the 40-footer’s propeller shafts.

When Murray pulled on his life jacket, he had time to fasten the waist belts, but the leg straps were dangling. Somehow, the straps got hooked on the coxswain’s flat, the surface where the coxswain stands. Murray was trapped.

He reached for the knife attached to his belt and cut the leg straps loose. Now he had to find a way out. Murray tried to swim down underneath the side of the boat, but the buoyancy of the life jacket kept him up against the bottom of the boat. He then removed the life jacket, but kept a tight hold of it, knowing that he would need it later.

He tried again to swim down under the side of the boat but failed. Nearly depleted, Murray knew he had to try something else. He went to the back of the boat, grabbed the rail, and tried to swim under it, but the life jacket caught on something. He was forced to let go of the life jacket, and he swam under the stern.

He extended his arm above his head, reaching for the water’s surface. The 40-footer’s balsa wood life raft happened to be floating right by him. “I was just lucky that night,” he said. “I guess my guardian angel worked double time.”

He tried two or three times to get in the raft, but it just rolled over on top of him. He tried to hang on the side, but he couldn’t do that either, so he wove his arm through the raft’s nylon webbing. Murray glanced back at the 40-footer and saw Lowe and Maxwell clinging to the propeller shafts. The three men hollered for help.

Edwards, coxswain of the 36-footer, was worried when he lost sight of the 40-footer. By this time, his boat was sluggish and the stern compartment was half full of water. Edwards started making an expanding circle around the area. As he turned, crewman Brian Johnson spotted the men in the water.

A moment later, Murray looked up and saw Edwards and the 36-footer coming right down on top of him, riding a huge breaker. As the 36-footer collided with the overturned vessel, Lowe leaped to the 36-footer and made it on board.

Murray was dangling off of the life raft, his right arm still woven through the webbing. He flipped end over end in the raft through the crashing surf. The raft was dragging him by his arm, which was tangled in the webbing.

A larger breaker carried Murray into the stern of the 40, and Maxwell reached out and grabbed him. They cut Murray’s arm loose from the webbing, and he joined Maxwell on the shaft. The crew of the 36-footer finally got close enough to pull Murray and Maxwell on board.

Murray now felt that it was too risky to try and cross the bar. He made the decision to head for the Columbia River Lightship instead, which was located 5.1 miles off the river’s entrance. Though the vessel took a beating on the way out, the 36-footer reached the Lightship at about 9:20 p.m., and the men were pulled on board. The 36-footer, in a near sinking condition, was tied to the stern of the Lightship.

Meanwhile, Culp and his crew on the Triumph struggled to keep the Mermaid in tow. The towline snapped a second time, probably due to chafing on the Mermaid’s rail. Culp hooked to the Mermaid again, but at approximately 8:10 p.m., the Triumph lost the Mermaid for the third time.

This time, the Mermaid was carried into the mountainous breakers at Peacock Spit. Coxswain John Culp radioed Warren Berto, the chief at Point Adams, and told him that the Triumph was “going in to get him.”

Still beneath deck, Huggins suddenly felt the Triumph roll on its side. He wasn’t too alarmed at first because he was sure the boat would right itself. But a few seconds later, the vessel rolled completely over on its top.

Trapped in the Triumph’s hull, Huggins tried to open the compartment’s door. It wouldn’t move. He grabbed a fire axe and tried to chop his way out, but he quickly realized that the hull was too thick. Not knowing what else he could do, Huggins made sure his life jacket was fastened.

A few minutes later, the Triumph righted itself. Huggins tried the door again, and this time it opened. He went up on deck and searched for the rest of the crew. The deck was empty. He hollered but no one answered.

The floundering Mermaid managed to rescue one man from the water, Joseph Petrin. Soon after, Porter at Cape D talked with Petrin over the radio. Petrin was in shock and all he could say was, “Chief, a big breaker hit us and the 52-footer went down. I am the only one left.” At this time, neither Petrin nor Huggins knew that the other one was still alive.

On the deck of the Triumph, Huggins remembered that Sussex had been in the forward compartment. He went looking for him, but the compartment’s doorknob was missing. He beat on the door, but he couldn’t budge it and no one responded. He made his way to the companionway that went below deck and grabbed on to some handholds.

Huggins struggled to hang on to the boat. Then the unthinkable happened. The vessel capsized again. Huggins was tossed into the raging sea. Each time he heard a breaker coming, he grabbed his life jacket, curled into a ball, and held his breath. Huggins believes he passed out a few times. He remembers being jarred back to consciousness when his body slammed against the ocean’s floor.

Eventually, Huggins found his footing. The next thing he knew, he saw searchlights. “I just started screaming,” he said. At approximately 10:45 p.m., two Coast Guardsmen from North Head Lighthouse, Grover Dillard and Junior Meyer, ran toward Huggins and pulled him up on shore.

When the triumph capsized, Point Adams sent two additional 36-footers to the scene. One of the boats managed to get the Mermaid in tow and tried to proceed to the Lightship, but they made little progress. At around 11:00 p.m., a huge breaker hit the 36-footer and the Mermaid, snapping the towline for a final time. The Mermaid somersaulted end over end and disintegrated in the surf.

Gordon Huggins would be the only survivor of the Triumph. His lost comrades were: Petty Officer 1st Class John L. Culp; Petty Officer 2nd Class John S. Hoban; Seaman Ralph E. Mace: Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph E. Petrin; and Seaman Gordon F. Sussex. Fishermen Bert and Stanley Bergman also perished.

Throughout the night, two Coast Guard cutters and several aircraft searched for survivors but found only debris. The next morning a life jacket washed up on the beach, everything fastened but the leg straps. The survivors would return to work a few days later, but they would never forget the night that took their friends and forever altered their own lives.

Erika Weisensee, a fourth generation journalist, grew up in Clatskanie and now lives in Milwaukie, Oregon. She is a graduate of Portland State University’s master’s in writing program, where she wrote extensively about the Mermaid-Triumph incident and the Columbia River Bar. She is grateful to the survivors—Darrell Murray, Gordon Huggins and many others—for sharing their stories.

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