Rasmus Midgett’s Extraordinary Single-Handed Rescue of the Priscilla

Rasmus Midgett on the deck of the Priscilla following the shipwreck

Rasmus Midgett on the deck of the Priscilla following the shipwreck

In the last year of the 19th century, the rescue of the crew of 10 from the barkentine Priscilla by Surfman Rasmus Midgett remains one of the most dramatic, courageous, daring and brave rescues in the annals of the United States Life-Saving Service. That service would become called the United States Coast Guard in 1915, yet today this singular rescue still remains upon a pedestal of Coast Guard history.

The place was Hatteras Island, the focal point of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. More specifically, the place was the Gull Shoals Life-Saving Station, located just south of the small village of Salvo. Rasmus Midgett was Surfman Number One at that station, next in line to be Keeper. He also had been Surfman Number One at the neighboring station to the north, Chicamacomico, which would become famous for “The Mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico.” Rasmus would soon become the mightiest, so far.

On August 18, 1899, the most violent and destructive hurricane to ever hit the U.S. Atlantic coast until then was upon the island. It gave warning: It had wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, destroying thousands of homes and other buildings, killed hundreds of people and sank an untold number of ships. It had passed over Puerto Rico on the feast of San Ciriaco, and would henceforth forever be known as the San Ciriaco Storm.

It struck Hatteras Island on August 16. When it was over two days later, seven vessels were lost as total wrecks on the beach, and six more disappeared in the tumultuous seas without a trace. One of those that wrecked just offshore, Priscilla, was broken in two. The 10 remaining persons on board huddled in their half of the 643-ton barkentine in the middle of a huge hurricane and in the middle of the night with no idea where they were.

All United States Life-Saving Service stations had all beaches covered 24/7. Every day. All day. All night. In all possible conditions. That was their job. This was accomplished in two ways. Every day from sun up to sun down, every station had a man standing watch in the station tower. The second complimentary technique was employing a duty called beach patrol. This was done every day, from sun down to sun rise or during the daytime for adverse weather conditions such as storms, high winds, sand storms obscuring vision, heavy surf, thick fog and such. At the hour of the watch, two men from each station were sent to the beach. One went north, the other south. Eventually meeting their counterpart from the neighboring station, they would exchange beach checks along with the expected brief conversations about families, conditions and news. Then they would backtrack to their station, completing their patrol by presenting the other beach check to their Keeper. This was proof of duty. This routine, night after night, was usually a boring drudgery.

August 18 was not routine! Only a day and a half before, Midgett had been part of one of three teams responding to the inexplicable wreck of the Aaron Reppard. The life-savers sadly watched five people drown. It was during the height of the storm, and the conditions made it impossible to reach them. They did manage to save three sailors with a highly dangerous rescue technique that was not in “the book.” Several Surfmen tied lines around themselves and had another Surfman staying on the beach anchor the other end. Naturally, these life-saving crews were still exhausted the next day, but the storm raged on and the routine duties had to continue. Poor Rasmus Midgett drew one of the night beach patrols right after that.

Midgett left his Gull Shoal station at 3 a.m. on his personal horse. The tide was washing over the island, so he rode through the swash and rough surf. He passed one shipwreck hulk after the next from his previous experiences. It was dark, loud, unpleasant and difficult to see from the blowing sand and water and lack of light.

Depiction of the wreck of the Priscilla

Depiction of the wreck of the Priscilla

Then his superior training and island instincts kicked in. He spotted more flotsam and jetsam that may have been new since yesterday. As he continued, around 4:30 a.m., he began to hear faint voices. Then he heard the terrified screams of the Priscilla survivors.

Midgett figured out where they were, yet he was faced with an ultimate dilemma: It had taken him an hour and a half to reach this spot, and that was on his horse. “The book” said he was to return to the station and report the wreck. But that would take hours. And the heavy rescue cart may never make it through the slush. On the other hand, were he to go in alone and get injured or worse, they may all perish.

As a trained Surfman, Midgett observed that the waves were very high. The relationship between the height of a wave and the distance between them is call “wave length.” The higher they are, the farther apart they are. Quickly Midgett devised a bold and daring plan.

He called out to the ship and instructed one person to jump off when he said. He then ran out between the waves, retrieved that person and brought them safely to shore. It worked. He did that again. And again. Seven times he risked his life to save another.

But then he discovered that the three more people on board too badly injured for this to work. So, he went out between the gigantic waves an eighth time. He struggled to climb aboard, resting on the deck a few seconds to catch his breath and renew his strength. He picked up a survivor, climbed back down between waves and rushed the survivor to the beach. He did that all over again two more times.

By himself, Rasmus Midgett saved all 10 shipwreck survivors. In the middle of a hurricane … in the middle of the night … after two days of rescues. An extraordinary story of extraordinary heroism. These are the peaceful heroes that America has forgotten.

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