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, Frank Quirk Jr. of Peabody, captain of the pilot boat Can Do out of Gloucester, answered a distress call, leading his four-man crew into the teeth of the storm. Volunteers, they were doing something they’d done many times before, attempting to aid fellow sailors in trouble.
Both 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, including Quirk, Charlie Bucko, Norman Curley, Kenneth Fuller Jr. and Donald Wilkinson.
Their willingness to risk their lives for others was remembered yesterday in a solemn ceremony at the boat hanger of the Gloucester Coast Guard Station. Some 60 people, including nearly two dozen Coast Guardsmen, at attention 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,” Luis Munoz, commanding officer at the Coast Guard station, 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 told the News, 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,” he said. “It’s always there. Charlie Bucko taught me how to run a Coast Guard boat.”
Quirk’s 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, in 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, and he went out on the bow to put down the hatch.
“I got off the boat that day and kissed the ground,” he said. He also 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 said. “He was on the boat 7-24.”
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, one of the young volunteers working 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,” he said.
The sea was such that Can Do could not get to the beach. “A little after midnight the Mayday came,” Estes remembered. 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 a kid then, 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.” 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. 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, 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. Can Do was spotted in the water, one body within.
Relatives and friends of the lost men attended yesterday’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 famous Fisherman Memorial and the words inscribed on it, words taken 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.”