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., 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.
The Greek tanker Global Hope was apparently foundering on Salem Sound, and its would-be rescuer, a Coast Guard motor life boat, was also in trouble. Both 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.
Their willingness to risk their lives for others was remembered Wednesday at 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 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 Feb. 6, 1978. He’d been sent out aboard a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat to try to rescue the rescuers.
“We didn’t make it very far,” he told a reporter, 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 Coast Guard station's 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, father and son 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.”
The older Quirk and Bucko both had worked closely with the Coast Guard, winning the Mariner’s Medal for past rescues.
Gard Estes, who was close to Quirk, was part of a volunteer surf patrol and joined a desperate effort in the dark, at the height of the storm, to bathe Magnolia Beach in powerful searchlights, the better to give the wounded boat's crew a target to beach the vessel. “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. He jumped in a Jeep and rode along the coast looking for the boat and its captain.
If the sea was impossible, the land was buried under so much snow it would be days before most roads reopened to cars.
As night wore on, the Can Do’s messages came out of the freezing cold reflecting a fast-fading hope. In the days following the storm, the bodies came ashore on beaches along the North Shore. 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.
Gloucester 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.”
Alan Burke writes for The Salem, Mass., News.