By Alan Burke
---- — GLOUCESTER — The Bible describes a time when the seas “mount up to the heaven” and then “go down again to the depths.”
It was like that 35 years ago, in the midst of the Blizzard of ‘78.
Nevertheless, Captain Frank Quirk Jr. of the pilot boat Can Do, out of Gloucester Harbor, answered a distress call, leading his four-man crew into the teeth of the storm.
They were volunteers, doing what they’d done many times before — attempting to aid fellow sailors in trouble.
Both boats in distress — the apparently foundering tanker Global Hope, and its would-be rescuer, Coast Guard 44 motor life boat, were in trouble on Salem Sound. They would survive, but as the fury of the storm increased, the Can Do would be lost with all hands — Quirk, Charlie Bucko, Norman Curley, Kenneth Fuller Jr. and Donald Wilkinson.
The willingness of those men to risk their lives for others was remembered Wednesday in a solemn ceremony at the boat hanger of Coast Guard Station Gloucester on Harbor Loop, where up to 60 people — including nearly two dozen Coast Guardsmen at attention and in crisp dress uniforms — heard a succession of speakers laud the unselfish courage of the Can Do crew.
“The men we honor today are heroes in the true sense of the word,” Station Gloucester Commander Luis Munoz told the gathering. “They put the safety of others before their own.”
These were more than words for someone like Ralph Stevens, 57, of Salisbury, who was a young Coast Guardsman on duty that night. He’d been sent out aboard Coast Guard 41 to try to rescue the rescuers.
“We didn’t make it very far,” he said, recalling the 70 foot waves. “We made a four-man decision to turn around and come back. No ifs, ands, or buts. If we hadn’t I wouldn’t be here.”
In the mess room, Stevens looked out to where a life preserver from the Can Do hangs on the wall.
“You think about it every year at this time.,” Stevens said. “It’s always there. Charlie Bucko taught me how to run a Coast Guard boat.”
Quirk, who lived in Peabody, had made a living bringing pilots to ships moving in and out of Gloucester and Salem Harbor. His son, also Frank, was serving with the U. S. Marines in Okinawa when he got word of his father’s death. His days aboard Can Do taught him that his father knew full well the risk he took in a storm.
One day, he remembers, at Salem Harbor, “a huge squall picked up out of nowhere. My brother was aboard, myself, and my mother.” The sea slammed the bow so hard it ripped open the forward hatch. Water began pouring in. Mom was told to take the wheel.
“We tied a rope to my dad,” Frank recalled in an interview. He went out on the bow to put down the hatch. “I got off the boat that day and kissed the ground.” The younger Quirk announced he wanted no more of the sea, but his father minimized the incident.
At other times, the pair had worked as divers, recovering drowned swimmers, drowned divers and drowned boaters. But more frequently their missions were rescues.
“My dad was always helping people. He was on the boat 7-24.”
State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, one of the young volunteers working closely with the Coast Guard in 1978, spoke at the memorial.
“They were good and faithful,” he said of his colleagues. “At the time of the tempest they gave us strength and courage.”
Gard Estes was also part of the volunteer surf patrol and in the dark, at the height of the storm, he was part of a desperate effort to bathe Magnolia Beach in powerful searchlights, the better to give a target, a place to beach the wounded boat.
“We had the beach lit up like the Fourth of July,” Estes recalled.
The sea was such that the Can Do could not get to the beach.
“A little after midnight the Mayday came,” Estes said, looking down. Via radio, the increasingly desperate crew reported hypothermia along with serious injuries created when the windshield was smashed by the gale.
“I jumped in a Jeep and we went all the way to Salem looking for the boat and Frank. ... I was very close to Frank.”
Gloucester Police Lt. John McCarthy was then a kid who loved working on the police boat. He aided the effort to light the beach.
“We all set out in a four-wheel drive vehicle,” he said.
If the sea was impossible, the land was buried under so much snow it would be days before most roads reopened to cars.
McCarthy knew Quirk well. He smiled at the memory.
“He was one of a kind. He was a pistol, he really was,” McCarthy recalled, “and he could do anything on a boat.”
Both Quirk and Bucko had worked closely with the Coast Guard, winning the Mariner’s Medal for past rescues.
As the night wore on, the Can Do’s messages came out of the freezing cold reflecting a fast fading hope. And in the days following the storm, the bodies came ashore on beaches all along the North Shore. The Can Do was spotted in the water, one body within.
Relatives and friends of the lost men attended Wednesday’s ceremony, including Frank Quirk’s daughter Maureen Ouelette, a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter. A flowered wreath lay on a table, wrapped in a red, white and blue ribbon. Later in the day, the Coast Guard would bring it out to sea and drop it upon the waves in memory of the crew.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk linked the Can Do crew to the city’s iconic Fishermen’s Memorial, where the names of the Can Do crew are inscribed on the memorial’s cenotaph.
Kirk, drawing from the words inscribed on the Man at the Wheel’s base, and on the cenotaph itself, noted the words from Psalm 107 in the King James Bible: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”
Alan Burke can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.