Recipe for Disaster: Search and Rescue in the Blizzard of ‘78

USCG Decisive Courtesy Wikipedia

In February 1978 a blizzard hit the Northeast of the US. On land and on sea weather was wreaking  havoc. Around 5:00 PM on February 6, 1978 the oil tanker, Global Hope, contacted the Coast Guard in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The tanker had dragged their anchor and had water coming in the engine room. Earlier Station Gloucester had contacted the Global Hope to ask if they had dragged their anchor after calls from local residents came in. At that time the captain ‘confirmed’ that he had not dragged anchor. The Coast Guard dispatched two vessels, the Decisive and Cape George, and two boats to aid the Global Hope. The blizzard was continuing to mount.

Since the Cape George and Decisive were still a ways off, Station Gloucester had sent the 41353 and 44317 out together. However, 41353 was forced to turn back not long after starting out, due to the violent weather. The 44317, crewed by 4 men, proceeded with the mission. It was tough going for the 44317 as they were tossed around by the waves. Soon their equipment was knocked out and their radar wasn’t functioning. This was compounded by the fact they were navigating through a hazardous area. But they were calm through the ordeal and handling themselves very well.

A Pilot Boat Courtesy Wikipedia

While all this was going on, Frank Quirk was aboard his pilot boat, the Can Do. He and his friends had been listening in on the radio communications. In the past Quirk had been on hand during rescue missions. The Can Do had been converted into a pilot boat by Quirk, who owned and operated it.

After listening in on the radio communications between the 44317 and Station Gloucester and hearing the 44317’s predicament, Quirk decided to head out and see if he could lend a hand. Along with him were four others, three of whom he told to leave due to the danger involved. They stayed however. The crew’s names were: Frank Quirk, Charlie Bucko, Don Wilkinson, David Curley and Kenny Fuller. Of the 5, Quirk and Bucko had the most experience. Bucko had been a marine in Vietnam and been wounded twice. He later joined the Cost Guard, but had left the previous year.

Just as the Can Do was leaving Gloucester Harbor, the 44317 hit rocks and the engine quit. Station Gloucester’s commanding officer Edmund Paradis, who had been in constant contact, radioed them to drop their anchor. Bob McIlvride, in command of the boat, knew it would be suicide to send someone out to drop the anchor. He told Paradis he would and…didn’t. Instead the crew worked to get the engines restarted which they accomplished. The Surf Patrol had been able to spot the 44317 and helped its crew to maneuver away from rocks on the shore via radio. Miraculously the boat would later make it into Beverly Harbor and to safety. They had had to ditch the possibility of reaching the Global Hope.

In the meantime the Can Do was being battered. The “radar went out and the AM antenna went overboard” Quirk radioed. It was a precarious situation, but Quirk’s voice remained calm. Winds reaching 70+ mph were beating down on the Can Do. Paradis had sent the 41353 back out and it struggled on. From the breakwater they were to try and get a fix on the Can Do, which was headed for the harbor.

At about 1:00 AM Bucko radioed Station Gloucester. They were in distress. The windshield had had a hole blown in it and water was coming in. In the process Quirk’s head had been injured, which the crew was able to bandage up. It would later be shown that Quirk’s head injury wasn’t a minor scrape, but serious. He had been unconscious for a short time. The others found a mattress down below and stuffed it in the hole of the windshield. When Quirk came to he told Station Gloucester that he thought they were around Magnolia Beach. On shore, people drove out onto the beach. Shining their headlights out at the sea they hoped the Can Do would see them. Then communications stopped. Station Gloucester got in contact with  Group Boston asking that they help them establish communications with the Can Do. Group Boston was able to pick up faint messages.

On shore amateur (ham) radio operators were trying to get a fix on the Can Do’s position but were unsuccessful despite numerous attempts.  Amateur radio operator Mel Cole was able to establish communication, and began relaying messages to the Coast Guard. At 1:55 AM a message from the Can Do came in, “We’ve lost it! It’s all gone! We’ve had it!”. Afterwards news came that the Can Do’s crew had been rescued  and were headed to a hospital. It was a relief. Then Quirk radioed that it wasn’t true and that they were aground, “No Power. Taking on Water”.  By 2:15 AM they had the “anchor set and are holding our own”. They were unable to restart the engines. Their other radios had by this time shorted out. The last message received from the Can Do was from Quirk indicating they were moving aft because it was wet where they were.

In the morning the Decisive went to aid another vessel that had survived the night before setting out to locate the Can Do. The Decisive could not find the pilot boat, but the crew did note that the Global Hope was aground. The Coast Guard would eventually take its grateful crew off. Throughout the night the Decisive and Cape George had also had tough going. Ice had formed on the vessels making them top heavy and crew members were seasick. The Cape George had never gone to aid the Global Hope due to the danger, but had been carried over the breakwater and into Gloucester Harbor.

Man at the Wheel Courtesy Wikipedia

The next day a boat fender and life ring bearing the name Can Do washed up on shore. Later Quirk and Wilkinson’s body also washed up on the beach and the police retrieved the bodies.  Kenny Fuller and David Curley’s bodies were also found. On the 15th a plane went out looking for the Can Do. They located the banged up wreck, upright, in the water. In the engine room divers found Bucko’s body. They also found that Can Do’s anchor line had parted ways, which had been the fears back onshore.

Source : Tougias, Michael J. Ten Hours Until Dawn : The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do.

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33 thoughts on “Recipe for Disaster: Search and Rescue in the Blizzard of ‘78

    • Yes it was very sad. When I picked up the book at the library I never dreamed it would have such a terrible ending.

      Alot of people thought that if anyone would survive the night it would be the crew of the Can Do and the boat itself.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

      Like

    • You summed up the story so well though, virtually everyone else sounded to be a lost case and the Can Do would win through, and dash to the rescue… and… they didn’t even need to do the rescue in the end. That’s where the tragedy kicks in.

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    • Thanks much.

      And the tragedy didn’t stop there. Tougias in his book Ten Hours Until Dawn said the tragedy affected Quirk’s son greatly. His son committed suicide soon after.

      Like

    • Heroic actions, people who are prepared to give their lives, what a contrast with some of the life we see around, and how horrific for the son. Thanks for the extra, and equally moving info.

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  1. I love history.

    I have a suggestion for you concerning your pictures. The second picture is a whopping 7.8 MB but is only 363 pixels wide. It took forever for WordPress to render the monster picture down to 363 pixels.

    I would suggest resizing your pictures before uploading them to WordPress. That does many things for you.

    First, it allows WordPress to render the picture much faster, almost instantaneously, for the smaller size in your blog post.

    Second, it is much faster to upload a 100 KB picture than it is a 7.8 MB picture. I resize my pictures to be 575 pixels on the longest side before uploading them (make a copy; don’t do it to the original), which makes the picture around 75 KB. I’ve never uploaded a picture that was larger than 100 KB.

    Third, a smaller picture of 100 KB uses less of your allowed storage space. You can upload seventy-eight 100-KB pictures for every one 7.8-MB picture.

    Fourth, those readers who are impatient with page and picture loading will stick around, look, read, like, and comment.

    Try it and see if you don’t get more likes and comments.

    Like

    • Thanks, Russell, I’ll do that. I took that picture from Wikipedia and inserted it into the post via the link. Does the photo still take up room that way or is it only when you upload it from your computer?

      Like

    • Right click on the picture and then click on properties. You’ll see how big the picture is in terms of pixels, a seven -digit number like 4450789. Yet the actual size in your blog post is miniscule. A picture the size of what you have should not be more than 50 KB or so, letting WordPress instantaneously insert it into your post. Right click on some pictures in my post and see how big they are. For example, in my most recent post, the first picture is 575 pixels on its long side yet it is only 75 KB. Instantaneous rendering.

      Like

  2. Pingback: It’s quite catchy: Blog on Fire Award! | foodtable // la vie éclectique

  3. I just came across this story of the Can Do when I Googled for stories of the 1978 Blizzard. I was the radioman on duty in the Group Boston Communications room from the start to the finish of the loss of the Can Do. Myself and another radioman were snowbound for three days and shared the duties over those three days. But I was the RM second class (E-5) that worked the case. BM 1st class Jones, was the duty officer. It was through me that all pertinent communications had to be cleared. I also ran phone patches from the First Coast Guard District HQ to the ships involved in the rescue attempt. During my years at GB, I had several dealings with Frank Quirk — a veteran of the Korean war and a SeeBee. I wrote a story about the Can Do and submitted it to the Readers Digest back in 1981 or somewhere thereabouts, but they were not interested. Such is life. Eugene R. DeLalla. PS. I am also a Vietnam vet and served in the Air Force as a security policeman defending the perimeter of the air base before, during and after the 1968 Tet Offensive.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing this information, very interesting.

      Readers Digest’s loss that they didn’t accept the story. The Can Do story is a fascinating one, as well as sad. In his book Michael Tougias included some of the communications between Group Boston and the Can Do. Quirk seemed to have been remarkably calm, through the ordeal.

      Again thanks for sharing all of this.

      Like

    • You are welcome. If anyone is interested, I would be happy to relate more of the actual incident. All can use my e-mail address. Take care.

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  4. I was not quite ten when the blizzard of 78 hit. I will never forget it. School out for what seemed liked forever to a kid of not quite 10. Should’ve been a fun time, but not at our home. The tv was on nonstop showing the news, the sound off while my mother constantly vacuumed our house day after day. I never connected it until years later that she vacuumed so often and for so long so that the 5 of us kids couldnt hear her cry. Her brother, my uncle was Kenny Fuller.

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  5. I also served in the Coast Guard at the time of this incident — I happened to be the duty photojournalist in the First District Public Affairs office. I and another Coast Guardsman — PA John Bablitch — spent much of the storm in the office (located next to the old Boston Garden) reporting on rescue attempts throughout New England, including the grounding of the Global Hope and the loss of the Can Do and her selfless crew. Michael Tougias’s book is an excellent retelling of the story. The audibook version includes recordings of communications with the doomed crew.

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    • Hello, Dale. Thank you very much for your comment. I really can’t tell everyone enough how much I appreciate them sharing their experiences of this event.

      Regarding Tougias’ book, yes it is. I hadn’t listened to the audiobook, but now that you’ve mentioned the recordings I will.

      Thank you again for taking the time to share this.

      Like

  6. I was stationed at Station Gloucester at that time. I was recalled from liberty and drove from Acton Ma. to get back to my unit in the dark of night. I served with Charlie Bucko. It was a long night witha sad ending.
    Bob did a great job saving the crew of the 44317. The sad truth is that the radar never worked in heavy weather on that boat, and we didn’t have Loran on the boats. A compass, a chart and a stopwatch was all Bob had to nvigate with. But for the grace of god, he and his crew survived. My hat’s off to you Bob.

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    • Thank you for sharing, Stephen, appreciate it!

      I wish it could have ended better than what it did. 😦

      Yes the 44317 story is amazing. That section of “Ten Hours Until Dawn” had me glued to the pages. A “happier” moment in the midst of tragedy. If only the same could have been said of the Can Do.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Like

    • Hello…I see that there are some additional comments re the 44317 and the ’78 tragedy. Again, I was the radioman on duty at Group Boston during the entire storm and loss of the Can Do. A reserve radioman (from Gibraltar) called the comm cen and said he would leave his home and get into his car and use his hi-beams to use them as a beacon of sorts in order to guide the 44 back to shore. He was unsuccessful. But he was heroic nonetheless as visibility was next to zero and any travel away from his home was dangerous. He barely made it back to safety. There is MUCH more to add…

      Like

    • Hi Eugene,

      If anyone would care to know more you are all more than welcome to carry out a discussion right here. But if you prefer something more private would you rather I forwarded your email address to whoever would like to know more (it’s viewable to me as the administrator, but to no one else)?

      Like

    • Hi, oh, yes, please make it available to everyone. There is SO much to this story that some may not know. I know, I was there! God bless.

      Like

  7. What a Tragic story. I found this when I googled the “Can Do” during a broadcast of the story, I think is was from a “Weather Channel” story. I had left New England for Florida in September of ’77, but my family were all still in RI, MA & ME during that storm. I descend from a long-line of Seafarers, in doing Genealogy, I have so many “Lost at Sea” entries. My heart goes out to all the Families, and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who risked their lives during this incident. This has been a good read. Thanks again for sharing it. Cathee

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    • Just a quick note… I contacted Michael T. of Ten Hours Until Dawn and revealed that I was “Group Boston” on the radio that terrible night; he thanked me, but that’s about all. I guess he wasn’t too excited? That night is as fresh in my mind as it was on Feb. 6 and 7th. of ’78….

      Like

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