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Harry Kelley’s Untold Rescue Story
by John Studnicky
Collection of Judge Dale Cathell
The US Airways (January 15, 2009) rescue on the Hudson River yesterday reminded me of a historic winter night I shared with Mayor Harry Kelley on the beach in OC. I went to your website and was surprised to see that the history of a 1978 shipwreck, the rescue of the crew, and the heroism of Mayor Kelley have gone unrecorded all these years. Here's the true story:

It was late December 1977 or, more likely, January 1978. We were in the midst of a tremendous Nor-Easter. I lived at the English Towers with my mother and younger brothers while attending Salisbury State. I worked next door at Century One as night security guard. The rain was torrential and siteeratures just above freezing. I offered to walk the family mongrel before I had to check in for duty at Century One.

As I turned past the north corner of the English Towers, and looked out to see the storming Atlantic, my entire field of vision was blocked by what appeared to be giant, grey steel, floating factory. No words can describe the eerie disruption. There was no ocean... only oil barge. The barge was being slammed into the shore. It was almost as long as the English Towers. I ran the dog back into English Towers and ran back to the scene.

The massive 20 foot walls of the floundering leviathan were rising and falling 10, 15, 20 feet at a time with each crashing wave. Occasionally a wave would break over the entire ship. The moaning sound of bending steel against a fierce wind and crashing surf drowned my thoughts. It was mind numbing.

Mid 1970's beach erosion had left very little sand between this threatening behemoth and the condos. The barge seemed it would eventually menace the English Towers as each 20 foot surge stole a yard of sand from the beach. The resulting sea wall of sand left a precarious 12 foot drop to the wet sand below as waves receded.

Collection of Judge Dale Cathell
Coming to my senses, I noticed that there was no one on board the barge. My assessment of immediate risk was lacking as the drama escalated rapidly when I glanced south toward the Century One tower. There sat a failing ocean tug. The steel cable connecting her to the barge stretched like a giant hand-cuff over a full block to Century One. The red and black tug fought helplessly in the surf. She had passed the breakers, pulled into the vicious surf by her own client, the empty oil barge. She had lost her rudder and would be hopelessly smashed to bits within hours.

There were six to seven frantic crewmen screaming for help as the 20 foot waves swamped their engines and blackness took over the ship.

A collection of about 12 volunteers started to appear from nowhere, consisting of firemen, some OC police, and some residents. We gathered and took orders from the professionals. Spot lights were handed out. The firemen drew a rifle with a tethered spear and line, and shot at the boat. The line missed twice. Each time, as we pulled the line back through the pounding surf, another massive wall of water would swamp the tug. Each time the water receded, we saw the sailors falling about the decks, grasping for life-holds. Each wave tore a part of the ship off and sent it crashing into the sand.

Collection of Judge Dale Cathell
Finally the third time, the line was retrieved. A thin nylon lead was used to pull a larger one inch rope out to the disintegrating tug. The sailors secured the line to the tug, and we pulled our end taught; wrapped around our bodies and gripped in our hands. The crewmen would wait for a wave to hit and time their climb to the shore. The sea gave us a good reprieve and the first few shimmied across the line to the wet sand. We pulled them up the 12 foot sand wall by hand as they dropped from the rope to the lower sand deck. Then the storm tested us... our crewman in transit on the line was slow... a enormous 20 foot wall of foam and water hit the ship knocking it toward us and relaxing the line, as the wave hurled towards our sailor, the line went slack, he held on for dear life dropping five feet down toward the sea. The wave over took him, pulling all 10 of us toward the collapsing sea wall. We could barely keep our footing and we lost sight of the shipmate as he was swallowed by the surge. When the wave receded, the line was still heavy. He held on. He made it.

We went through two or three more similar hair-raising recues until we were down to the skipper. He was older, and heavy and (even from the shore,) we could tell that he was not a very able man. He timed his escape. He knew he could never climb the rope for the 30 to 40 feet needed to stay out of the surf. He waited for a calm. He slid twenty feet down the rope... jumped to the wet sand and water of a receding wave at about knee depth, and he ran like the dickens to get to the sea wall where we pulled him up.

Our victory over the sea was complete. There was much hugging and crying. We were crowing and screaming and grunting big man noises! Atsiteting a daring rescue may be the greatest thing one could ever do for another... we were ecstatic!!!

As I turned to thank the guy who had my back, knowing he had held the rope just behind me, and was the man who kept me from falling off that sea wall, he hugged me with tears in his eyes and asked my name...

Then he said "Thanks, John, for being here, and all you did tonight, I'm Harry Kelley."

Within an hour of saving the crew, the barge broke loose, smashed the tug to bits, and drifted south.

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