Captain involved in rescue


Way Back When

April 06, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Twenty-three years before the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage to New York in April 1912, taking more than 1,500 souls to a watery grave, there was the story of the Danmark, whose sinking on April 6, 1889, had a much different ending.

The story of the rescue of more than 700 crew and passengers of the stricken steamer by the freighter Missouri, out of Baltimore, is a sea tale largely forgotten today.

The Missouri was one of four freighters of the Atlantic Transport Co. that regularly sailed between Baltimore and London. The 4,200-ton ship with three masts, black-striped red funnel and green hull was under the command of 25-year-old Capt. Hamilton Murrell of Baltimore.

The ship departed West Hartlepool, England, on March 28, 1889, bound for Baltimore with a general cargo of cement, linseed oil, rags, wool, indigo, herring and goat skins. On eastbound voyages, she carried cattle for the English markets.

Head winds and high seas made for a slow voyage when on April 5, an officer on the bridge sighted the Danmark of the Thingvalla Line, dead in the water some 800 miles from Newfoundland, flying distress signals.

The ship, under the command of Capt. C.B. Knudsen, had departed from Copenhagen on March 26 for New York.

Fifteen days out, an explosion in the ship's boiler room killed the chief engineer, broke the propeller shaft and punctured a hole in the ship's bottom. Due to a heavy running sea, Knudsen decided against lowering the ship's lifeboats, while passengers and crew prayed for rescue.

"At 1:15 p.m., Mr. Lucas, the officer in charge, sighted a steamer with flags flying about one point off the port bow which he duly reported, and going on the bridge I saw it was a signal of distress which the ship was flying," Murrell said in his account of the incident.

"The course at once was altered, and the Missouri was steered as close as possible to the steamer. On getting near, the signals asking `What assistance do you want' were hoisted on the Missouri, the answer being that the steamer was disabled and wished me to take off her passengers," wrote Murrell.

Knudsen signaled back, "I have 735 passengers on board, and that is too many lives to be lost upon one vessel." (Accounts vary as to the number of people aboard the Danmark.)

Pumps were barely keeping ahead of the water that began rising in the Danmark's holds as her crew fought what was becoming a losing battle against the sea. Because of weather conditions, Murrell decided against risking an open-sea transfer of the Danmark's passengers to his vessel, opting instead to tow the disabled vessel to the nearest port, which was St. John's, Newfoundland.

During the night, as the two ships slowly made progress, the barometer began falling as the seas increased. Ice was reported to be in the path of the ships. Murrell, knowing he couldn't punch his way through an ice field, turned his vessel toward the Azores.

"At 8:30 a.m. signals were made from the Danmark, `Am leaking badly, five feet of water in the hold.' At 9 a.m., came the next signal, `am sinking, take off my people.' The tow rope was then ordered cut and signals made from the Missouri to send a boat. At 9:30 a.m. the chief officer of the Danmark came alongside and gave a report," wrote Murrell.

Because the Missouri was a cattle boat, she had a condenser that was able to produce 8,000 gallons of water a day but only had enough provisions for her crew of 37 for three weeks. To accommodate the Danmark's passengers, Murrell ordered that all cargo between decks be thrown overboard.

The evacuation of the stricken Danmark was orderly, with women and children being taken into the lifeboats first. All available food and stores were also brought over to the rescuer.

The first lifeboats brought 22 babies, thereby presenting Murrell with another dilemma: how to get the children safely aboard the swaying decks of his ship. He ordered that wicker coal baskets be rigged with ropes into which the babies were placed and then pulled aboard.

By nightfall, the abandoned Danmark had rolled to the bottom.

En route home on the rescue ship, a 22-year-old Danish woman gave birth to a baby girl who was christened Atlanta Missouri by captains Murrell and Knudsen.

On April 10, the Missouri steamed into the Azores, where all single men were put ashore. Some 365 married men, women and children then sailed for Philadelphia, where they arrived on May 2, ending the high seas rescue in which not one soul was lost.

"There was never a jollier tar aboard a ship than Capt. Hamilton Murrell of the Missouri appeared to be today. He was the lion of the day, indeed, and through all the excitement and bother incident to so great a responsibility as he has had upon his shoulders for the past sixteen days he was the same affable, big-hearted mariner, who had kind words for everybody, and whose modesty never for one moment forsook him," reported the New York Times.

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