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Seaham George Elmy Lifeboat
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  The Alarm At 4:10p.m. on Saturday the 17th. November 1962, the Seaham lifeboat,George Elmy, was activated to search for the missing fishing coble, ( Economy ). Within minutes of receiving the alert, George Elmy and her crew of five, disappeared down the slipway into the darkness, never to return. The Disaster The lifeboat had put to sea in appalling weather conditions but at about 4:30 p.m. they pulled alongside the coble and miraculously rescued four men and a nine year old boy. The lifeboat and it's courageous crew battled against mountainous seas in an attempt to get back to the safety of the port, but at 5:20 p.m., just yards from the harbour entrance, she was struck by a gigantic wave and capsized, with the loss of her entire crew and all but one of the people they had rescued from the coble. After the capsize, the lifeboat was washed up on the Chemical beach with one survivor who had been clinging to the upturned boat but there was no other signs of life.  The Search Lifeboats from Sunderland and Hartlepool were called out to search the stormy seas for any more survivors. An Avro Shackleton search plane was scrambled from R.A.F. Coastal Command at Kinloss to widen the search area but their efforts were in vain. The deafening roar of it’s engines could be heard as it circuled the area over and over again dropping flares that briefly turned the night sky into day. Throughout the night, emergency services and local people worked side by side in the hope of finding more survivors, sadly, their search was in vain. The next morning in the cold light of day, the true horror of what had taken place was there for all to see. Washed up on the shore, just a few hundred yards south of the harbour, lay the bruised and battered wreck of the vanquished George Elmy. The Aftermath Following the events of the previous day, efforts were made to right the lifeboat and the full extent of the damage began to emerge. She had been savaged by the relentless storm and had suffered extensive damage. She was a pitiful sight to behold. As efforts to find survivors continued, work was underway to remove the boat from the scene of the tragedy. She was salvaged and taken to the R.N.L.I. depot at Boreham Wood, Herts., for examination by accident investigators. Most of the people of Seaham thought that was the end of the boat and she slipped into quiet obscurity. Little was known about the George Elmy after that fateful day and the people of Seaham were unaware that she underwent extensive repairs and returned to service with the R.N.L.I., first as a reserve lifeboat before moving on to Poole in Dorset where she served untill her retirement from the fleet.
George Elmy Lifeboat Disaster
The sole survivor of the Seaham lifeboat disaster on November 17, a 32 year-old miner, Donald Whinfield Burrell retold the whole story of the tragedy. He gave evidence at the Seaham inquest on the eight men and the boy - his own son, who died. A verdict of "accidental death due to drowning" was recorded. Coroner's Advice.  The Coroner Mr. T.V. Devey, recording a verdict of "Accidental death due to drowning" on all the victims said, that it would perhaps be better for inexperienced fishermen to ask the harbourmaster if it was safe to go out if the weather was bad. Mr. Devey said that he was perfectly satisfied that the lifeboat was in a good state of seaworthiness and that the coxswain was a competent man. "No blame should be attached to the coxswain," said Mr. Devey. He added: "The only bright spot about the whole business has been the generosity of the public in contributing to the appeal fund." Mr. Burrell of Daphne Cres., Parkside, Seaham said that for the past four years he had sailed regularly as a member of the crew of the fishing coble Economy, which was jointly owned by his brother and Joseph Kennedy, both of Seaham. During the summer they often sailed during the week as well as at week- ends, but during the winter they sailed only at week-ends as it normally took a full week to prepare the bait and lines. About 7 a.m. on November 17, 1962, he left the North Dock, Seaham, in the Economy with Gordon Burrell and Joseph Kennedy only. Visibility was not too good but the water was ideal for picking up the lines. The engine was working perfectly. They returned to the North Dock between 10 and 10.30 a.m. the same day. Between 2.30p.m. and 3.p.m. the same day, he again left the North Dock, Seaham in the Economy, this time accompanied by Gordon Burrell, Joseph Kennedy, George Firth and his own son, nine-year-old David Burrell. They went to sea to shoot the fishing lines again with the intention of taking them in the next day. Another fishing coble the Silver Spray, put to sea shortly before them. When they left the North Dock they travelled south to a point opposite the first aerial flight south of Dawdon Colliery. They started shooting the line about half a mile out to sea in the four to six fathoms area. At this time the visibility was fair, although it was drizzling and the sea had only a moderate swell. There was nothing at this time to give any of them any cause for anxiety and the state of the sea was even better than at the Seaham Harbour mouth. They were not wearing life-jackets this time. They then travelled south-east for about 700 yards, laying a six piece line. They shot a second line at a point about 500 yards farther out to sea than the start of the first line, and also to the south-east. The second line, an eight or nine-piece line, about 1,000 yards long, was' actually two short lines bent together. They did this not because the weather was getting worse, but to allow them to haul in quicker the following day. As.soon as they had shot the lines they made their way back towards Seaham Harbour. It would then be about 3.45 p.m. Son was Cold.  After reaching a point about two miles out opposite the Blast Point, sometimes known as the Viaduct, the weather suddenly started to build up. The wind blew harder and the moderate swell became a heavy sea with white tops. The boat was riding through the sea alright and the water was not washing over the top. "My son had a kapok life-jacket on from the time we finished shooting the lines because he was complaining about the cold. The jacket was put on over his head, covering his chest and back and tied by bringing the rope from the back between his legs, as the jacket was too large to tie in the normal way round the waist. "We all put our life-jackets on at this point, opposite the Blast point and I fastened mine securely. I did not see how the other men had theirs fastened but I did see that they had them on. After the Blast point the weather got worse and every minute was building up heavier and the sky was rather dark. It was almost dusk. Rocket Fired.  Joseph Kennedy put the engine on half throttle and the boat was still riding into the wind and the waves, the engine throttle was then put right back and Gordon Burrell was on the tiller keeping the boat head on to the weather. The lights of Dawdon Colliery appeared to be not far in front and to port. Joseph Kennedy remarked "I'm going to try and get back, I'm going to have the lifeboat out," and he sent up a standard red, five-flare rocket. It was only about ten minutes after this that the lifeboat reached them. It was then about 4.20. The lifeboat could be seen coming from the landward side round their stern and then come up from the seaward side. Into Lifeboat.  "One of the crew threw a rope to us as the lifeboat came alongside and there was a bump, beam to beam. I then passed my son David over to the lifeboat. The boats parted and then the lifeboat came back alongside, I jumped into her with one other man from the coble, I don't know who. The lifeboat sheered off again. "There was not a lot of water in the coble when we transferred to the lifeboat as it had been deflected by our 'dodger. Mr. Burrell described the return journey to Seaham Harbour and said he could see the Seaham lights through a port-hole. Either Leonard or Arthur Brown, Leonard he thought, told him they were already at sea looking for the coble when the rocket went up. His son, himself and Leonard Brown were underneath the engine cowling, the rest of the coble's crew were up forward with one of the lifeboat men. Behind him were three lifeboat men. The waves were hitting the lifeboat on the sides and splattering off to each side. The lifeboat was riding the sea very well and none of them under the engine cowling got wet at all. In fact, the engineer, Leonard Brown, was not wearing his oil- skins at all. He had said he did not have time to get them. Only the bottoms of his overalls were wet. Monstrous Waves"  "From where I was I could only see the waves retreating at the back of us and they were monstrous, although I have seen bigger seas. As the lifeboat was making her run to get into Seaham Harbour, the lifeboat man behind me and on the shore side of the boat, pointed across to his left and said 'There's the piers there, the red light's over there.' The coxswain started his run in and Arthur Brown who was on the seaward side of the boat behind me said 'No, there's the lighthouse over there, man,' pointing to his right. The coxswain had only about a minute's run on the course and then veered off to his right and back out to sea. Two of the lifeboat men pulled the wheel over together. I don't know whether the coxswain took the lifeboat round in a circle or whether he just took her off to the right and carried on with his run. I was still under the engine cowling. "In any case, the coxswain made a second attempt at a run into Seaham Harbour. He shouted, 'Hang on. We are going in now.' My son and I hung on to the brass rail inside the engine cowling and Leonard Brown hung on to the two wheels under the cowling marked 'ahead, astern and stop. ' Arthur Brown had one hand on the same brass rail as I had. The coxswain was holding on to the wheel and the third lifeboat-man at the rear had one hand on the port side brass rail. I could not see the others at the bow end of the lifeboat. Had Hold Of Son.  "The lifeboat then slowly tipped over to the port and carried on until she went right under. We fought our way out from under the boat. I tried to get hold of my son and did so. I had hold of one of my son's arms and someone with a yellow oilskin had hold of my other arm but the sea parted us. When I surfaced I saw that I was one of eight men clinging on to the lifeboat and one man was swimmimg towards the lifeboat from the seaward side. "I don't know if he got to .the boat: I did not see my son. I was holding on to the propeller shaft and a big man. I don't know who, was lying almost on top of me. My brother was next to him and another man along the same side of the boat. Arthur Brown was somewhere at the bow end. There were two other men clinging on to the other side from me and one swimming and one man was lying on the keel of the boat. Another big wave came and washed all of us off the boat and I could not then see it. Almost immediately, another wave lifted me back to the boat and there were then three or four of us on the boat, including my brother Gordon. I got my left arm through a winch hole in the stern and my right arm round the propeller shaft and hung on. The waves were still bursting over the top of us. There was a life- jacket light winking about 30 to 40 yards to the landward side and another further inshore and one man was swimming towards the piers at Seaham Harbour. "I clung on and drifted with the boat, the others must have been washed off with the waves later. I saw some lights just north of the big rock on the Chemical beach and we were only 10 to 15 yards off shore with at least three of us still hanging on. We all shouted but no help came and the boat drifted south. I then heard the mast scraping on the bottom and the lifeboat was washed ashore on the Chemical beach and I dropped on to the shore. I was washed back and forth and some chains were wrapped round me. I managed to get out of these and on to the shore and round a big rock." Mr. Burrell said that after resting in a little hole at the back of the rock he attempted to get up the cliff. He rolled down and lay awhile and then went along toward a pipe. A Mr. Thomas Elliott and some others came near and he shouted to them and they took him up the cliff on a rope and he was then taken to hospital. Lights Confused.  About the mistake in finding the harbour entrance at the first run in by the coxswain, he wanted it to be known that on several occasions in the past he had seen what he thought was a red light on the end of the pier (south) and had started a run-in only to find that they had to alter course to starboard on sighting the south pier red light to starboard. He had walked round the south end of Seaham Docks looking for this other red light but had never been able to locate it. He did not think he had commented upon this to anyone before. The light was apparently at the same height as the red light on the south pier. Coastguard Alexander MacFarlane of Seaham, said that at 3.30 p.m. on November 17, he set bad weather watch and on the way to the Coastguard lookout a local fisherman mentioned there was still a coble at sea. Shortly after the lifeboat left the harbour at 4.10 p.m. he saw red star rocket distress signals from the coble. At about 5. p.m. he saw the navigation lights of the lifeboat as she was heading north towards the harbour entrance. He did not see the lifeboat turn over but heard someone say it had done so. The life-saving company was called out and after getting some additional equipment he went to Dawdon beach to help in searching for survivors. When he set up a bad weather watch there was a heavy swell, over-cast, rain it was squally and deteriorating fast. Lights Went Out.  Captain Robert Hudson, Harbourmaster at Seaham Harbour, said that at about 4 p.m. on November 17, he was informed that the fishing coble Economy had put to sea before 3 p.m. and because of the sudden gale there was no chance of her making back to port or even surviving. After making sure that the coble had not returned unobserved, the lifeboat was launched. After having picked up survivors from the coble the lifeboat was set to return home. The Coastguards at Seaham received this information by wireless from the lifeboat coxswain. About 5.20 p.m. when almost at the South Pier end, the lifeboat's lights were suddenly extinguished and it was realized that she had capsized. All the available men from the docks went southwards from the harbour in an attempt to rescue survivors. Rescue attempts by police, fire brigade and the Volunteer Lifesaving Brigade were organised. About 7 p.m. a survivor of the coble crew, Mr. Donald Burrell was rescued from the sea near the Pinnacle Rocks, where the lifeboat was washed ashore. "Good Headway" Capt. Robert S. Tait, of Burdon Crescent, Seaham, a Trinity House pilot at Seaham, said he saw the lights of the lifeboat a short distance off the South pier. "The boat appeared to me to be making reasonably good headway. I kept a close watch for her but lost sight of her momentarily due to the drum- head of the south pier. The boat then re-appeared just clear of the South drumhead and I saw her white masthead light and red port side light. I then saw the white masthead light and the green starboard light. Then almost immediately I again saw the white masthead light and the red port side light. "I then saw these two lights take a heavy lurch to port and disappear. I realized that the boat must have turned turtle. I went along to the South pier and saw some lights shining on life-jackets which were floating on the sea about 150 yards south of where I was standing and drifting towards the beach." Capt. Tait said that from the cliff top at Dawdon he could see the lights on the life-jackets and the upturned lifeboat drifting towards the beach. "I heard shouting from the sea but could not say whether it was from the boat or the life-jackets. On getting down to the beach farther south of the upturned lifeboat, I picked up a life-jacket with the light burning." "After picking up a second life-jacket with the light burning I continued walking along the beach and came to a survivor sitting among the rocks. The lifeboat was beached about 20 to 30 feet to seaward from the survivor." "Short Of Crew"  Tugmaster Mr. Thomas Turnbull, of Camden Square, Seaham, said he was sitting at home on November 17, when he heard the first rocket go off. He rushed to the door and saw the second rocket, which meant that the lifeboat had to be launched immediately. He got his car, picked up the coxswain, Mr. Jack Miller, in South Crescent. The mechanic, Mr. Len Brown, on their arrival at the boathouse, was already starting the engine. By this time Messrs J. Farrington and F. Gippert appeared. He put six life- jackets into the boat on the starboard side and two on the port side. He also placed all the available oilskins and seaboots into the boat. "The coxswain asked me if I would go with them because they were short of crew and I agreed as I have often been out with them and knew the routine. I was preparing to go when Arthur Brown came along and the coxswain said 'You stay, Tom and launch her, Arthur will come...' The crew aboard consisted of Jack Miller, Leonard Brown, James Farrington, Fred Gippert and Arthur Brown. The boat was launched and I saw the mast hauled up and lights switched on." Mr. John Mackey, of North-Dene Avenue, Seaham, a Trinity House pilot at Seaham Harbour explained about red lights at the port. He said the only red light that was permanently fixed at the docks was the one on the south pier. This was quite a powerful light and under no circumstances could any other light be mistaken for the one on the South pier. There was a red light on the dock head which was far less powerful than the one on the South pier. This light was operated by the dock gate-man and gave a signal to the colliers that the gates were open for them to enter the harbour. On the occasion of the lifeboat disaster, there were no ships waiting to enter the port as the gates were closed. The light could not possibly be mistaken for the one on the South pier.
Coroner’s Report
John Miller (Coxswain) Arthur Brown James Farrington Leonard Brown Frederick Gippert (Second Coxswain)
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