Even a quarter century later, Anthony Militello, 50, skipper of the ill-fated fishing vessel Hattie Rose, can still feel the numbing cold of 32-degree water. “Some of the most vivid memories [of the rescue] are like snapshots in a photo album,” he says.
Militello’s rescuer, Bill Ross, the retired commanding officer of Coast Guard cutter Cape Horn, dreams still about the night of February 7, 1980. Ross sees his rescue cutter “sliding down the backside of a huge wave in the dark,” adding, “I can see [the fishing vessel] Hattie Rose rolling over underneath my bow. I can feel the cold and hear the screams of the men in the water.”
Almost 25 years have passed since the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Cape Horn saved six frightened fishermen from frigid North Atlantic waters off Provincetown, Massachusetts. But the fishing vessel’s skipper and the cutter’s captain will never forget the night that changed their lives forever. Their recollections of the rescue – both the crew of Hattie Rose, and those manning the Coast Guard vessel – have been aided by a rare audiotape of distress communications that chronicles the terrifying events and the fear and joy that existed that stormy night.
The tape was made by Master Chief Ron Knipple, the former officer-in-charge of nearby Coast Guard Station Provincetown. Knipple directed his people to put a portable recorder near the VHF-FM marine radio speakers because, he thought, “a lot of people were going to die that night.”
Recording equipment for Coast Guard rescue stations would not come for several years, and even then, would only be archived for just two years, making the 1980 Hattie Rose rescue tape all the more special. The 75-foot Hattie Rose, a Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing vessel with a crew of six, left the Georges Banks fishing grounds 14 hours before trouble started on February 7, 1980. The vessel was a steel-hulled western-rigged trawler, just three years old and in good condition. Fishing had been excellent for Militello, then 25, and his five crewmen. There was 50,000 pounds of cod and varying species of other fish on board from just one day’s effort. Normally, it would have taken six to eight days of fishing to catch this much fish.
Life on the trawler was hard work and came in repetitive cycles of effort that involved fishing, offloading, repairing, re-provisioning and refueling. However, the enticement of a typical two-to-three day fishing trip in 1980 would “make much better than an average week’s pay from somebody working ashore,” according to Militello.
But there were risks at sea that landlubbers did not have to brave. The same fish that could put bread on the table could clog the scuppers that normally allowed flooding waters go back in to the sea. If the fishing was too good, the prospect of improperly loaded fish holds could bring unforeseen instabilities that could make a boat difficult to handle, or even cause it to capsize without forewarning, even in a calm sea. And, chief among the risks for a fishing vessel was New England’s unpredictable weather that could amplify any instability.
The weather was horrible the night of February 7, 1980 and continued to deteriorate as Hattie Rose motored towards Gloucester. Captain Militello restlessly lay down in his bunk after dinner. Shortly thereafter, the radio crackled with the distress call MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! from the nearby fishing vessel Mother & Grace. Militello recalls “they were about seven miles to the north of us also headed for Gloucester.” Hattie Rose quickly altered course to assist Mother & Grace. Lieutenant (j.g.) Bill Ross from Coast Guard cutter Cape Horn would recall just how bad the weather was that night as he and his crew got underway from safe refuge in Provincetown Harbor to respond to the distress call from Mother & Grace. “The cutter’s anemometer, recently calibrated in miles-per- hour, read 70 just before it blew off the yardarm.” Ross remembered how the trip from Provincetown began: “Snow was blowing horizontally and so heavy that the radar was useless. Navigation was by dead-reckoning and seat-of-the-pants. Crossing ‘the Race’ on the way out, the tide rip was opposing the wind driven waves. The beating we took caused a number of interior furnishings to be ripped off the bulkheads.”
Seas were higher than 15 feet, the contemporary safety ‘ceiling’ for cutters the size of Cape Horn. Some waves that night crested above 25 feet and occasionally, 40-footers ferociously slapped the side of the hull like a giant gong. Navigation was hampered because it was impossible to put pencil to paper in the stormy conditions. Severe icing conditions added topside weight and threatened the cutter’s stability, creating a hazardous ice rink for topside rescue personnel. Within a half hour of Mother & Grace’s problems, Captain Militello noticed his own ship felt “a bit sluggish,” and he bounded from his cabin and was “shocked when he looked aft and saw that the stern was just about under water.”
At about this same time, the fishing vessel Mother & Grace managed to resolve its troubles, and continued on its way toward Provincetown under the escort of two “good samaritan” fishing vessels. Captain Militello quickly pushed Hattie Rose’s throttles to the firewall and ordered all pumps brought on line to help dewater the vessel. He initiated his own rescue call at 9:40 p.m. and was extremely thankful that Ross and the rescue cutter were just seven miles away because of the previous distress call.
Cape Horn pounded her way through the maelstrom and arrived near Hattie Rose at 10:15 p.m. Militello’s crew quickly donned their survival suits and deployed the life raft. Unfortunately, Hattie Rose’s forward motion combined with the near hurricane force wind ripped the raft from the crew’s frozen hands and carried it over the side.
At this point, Militello and his crew were spiritually crushed, seeing their raft destroyed and galloping off and capsizing in the towering waves. Now they were anxious to be lifted off the floundering vessel by helicopters from the nearby Coast Guard Air Station on Cape Cod. They had no way of knowing the crews of the HH-3 “Pelican” rescue choppers were in an “all volunteer” status that night because of the horrendous weather. And, according to Ross, “the pucker factor was pretty big since the Coast Guard had lost an HH-3 and most of its crew eleven months earlier” in very similar circumstances trying to hoist a 47-year old crewman from a Japanese fishing vessel. Although helicopter crews would try repeatedly to get airborne this night, none would arrive until much later.
Ross knew the copters weren’t coming in time but was directed to withhold this hope-draining information from Hattie Rose’s skipper. Instead he repeatedly focused Militello on the possibility of a sea rescue that required the fishermen to voluntarily jump overboard in to the frigid 32-degree water. Militello’s response was predictably uncomfortable “but ah it seems awfully small to put six guys in these seas.”
After inquiring when the helicopter might be arriving and being told “35 minutes,” Militello knew his options were becoming limited and he became despondent. “Roger Cap, roger, oh God, God; God I don’t know what to do Cap!” Ross sensed Militello’s anguish and fear because Ross was afraid too, and encouraged Militello, knowing that if the ship’s captain faltered, so would his crew.
“Listen Cap you just stay with her. She’s uh, she’s still floating…just stay with her and uh, maybe uh, you know, it will work out you get out of here and you’ll be home real quick. Keep all your people together, uh gather all of the flares and lights and what ever you got uh, here and we’re going to stick with you and if you go in the water we’re going to pick you up as fast as we can.”
The situation became even bleaker as the nearby fishing vessel Paul & Dominic asked Militello if dewatering efforts were working. Militello’s voice trailed away. “We can’t get the pumps running. The deck… we can’t clear the deck and we don’t know what’s flooded: our water tank, our lazarette, the fish hold – I don’t know. Basically the only thing that’s not flooded is the engine room – I don’t know now, I still don’t know. I have everybody up here so I can keep track of everybody. I can’t clear the deck. I got to tell you though, we’re being swamped.”
Back on Cape Horn, Ross talked with the regional rescue commander in Woods Hole about an option to fire a line over to Hattie Rose and pass a towing hawser. Ross lamented “but the weather conditions here are such that I don’t know if they can even get anyone on deck to even catch it because their stern is under.”
After an hour and half of being escorted, Militello sensed that the end was near. By this time, Paul & Dominic had arrived on scene and began to trail Hattie Rose knowing the stranded fishermen could be in the water in seconds. According to Ross “we were out of time on all fronts. To stay afloat Hattie Rose had been heading directly downwind and could not turn around – the engine kept running because it was well forward and the flooding was progressing from aft. Ross discussed turning around with Militello, but Militello knew that as soon as he tried Hattie Rose would roll over.
At this point in the case both boats only had a couple of miles left before running into the huge breaking surf on the shoals of the backside of Cape Cod near Highland Light. Militello’s situation became even more desperate. “Ah, our stern is completely swamped. Jesus Christ, ah I don’t want to risk it any longer, I am scared to risk it, but I don’t know Cap. I don’t know if we should jump over the side or not! How long is this helicopter going to take to be here?”
Ross continued to try to calm Militello, but he also began maneuvering Cape Horn closer to Hattie Rose, and had guardsmen stand by Cape Horn’s cargo nets and get ready to throw the fishermen a line. At this point, Militello shouted to Ross, “Where’d you go, Cap!!” Ross responded, “I’m right behind you; about a ship length.” The seas were so high and so close together that even though the two vessels were only 80 feet apart, when one ship crested and the other was in the trough they would periodically lose sight of each other. As the distance closed to 50 feet Militello again held out hope for an air lift rather than a water rescue. “What’s the word on that helicopter Cap?!”
At 11:45 p.m. the skies miraculously cleared and a Cape Cod rescue chopper finally took off, expecting to arrive between 12:05 and 12:10 a.m., but it wouldn’t be soon enough and Militello and Ross both knew it. Militello indicated, “Roger Cap, I am really getting panicky here!”
Ross and Militello then discussed options for an alongside transfer of personnel direct from one boat to another, but Ross thought this was too dangerous. “Ah, I just, I can’t put the ship alongside of her. I can’t come alongside and take you off. She’ll puncture the hull and we’ll both go down. So I just can’t do that, so uh, we’re just going to have to get as close as we can, throw you lines and pick you up that way.”
The distance between the two boats had closed to 35 feet. The cutter’s spotlight played tricks on both crews as the men were alternately bathed in bright light and then thrust in to pitch darkness as the vessels asynchronously rolled 40, sometimes 50 degrees to either side.
Militello’s voice was pleading and occasionally drowned out by his fellow fishermen’s’ screams. “Cap, she’s all flooded, oh! If we go over the side now we’re going to be lost. Twenty-five foot seas, you’re never going to get us!” The skipper of Paul & Dominic encouraged Militello to take the plunge, “stay together, jot up the line and jump off together. You stay tied up to the line together. We get you, don’t worry about it.” Ross had now managed to get Cape Horn within two feet of Hattie Rose, perilously close for the conditions, and a line was thrown to the beleaguered vessel and Militello’s crew were finally all linked together. The time was 11:47 p.m. and Ross authoritatively told Militello “Ok, you guys got to think about doing this now!”
Militello knew the moment was near “Cap, when I say ‘go,’ I’m going to shut the engine down and jump with the guys. You got that Cap?” At 11:48 p.m., the Coast Guard helicopter had still not arrived in the area, but communications with helicopter CG-1484 were established with Ross. Hattie Rose was about to capsize and her crew were mustered and ready to jump overboard. Cape Horn was so close to Hattie Rose at this point that one misstep would have caused the cutter to crush Militello and his crew and possibly put a hole in the cutter.
At 11:49 p.m. Cape Horn’s crew had the end of the line connected to Hattie Rose’s crew when the fishing vessel slowly rolled over and capsized. All six fishermen jumped in to the frigid waters as Cape Horn’s crew simultaneously pulled on the life line.
The cutter, now stopped, wallowed in the towering sea and slowly slid down the backside of a huge 40 foot wave. This moment is the watermark that is forever etched in Ross’ memory and his night-time reminder for ages to come. Soon thereafter, the strain of bearing the weight of six fishermen snaps the life line. Four fishermen were close enough to grasp another line from the cutter and were quickly reeled in like fish to the Coast Guard vessel. But all four fishermen were nearly incapacitated by the numbing cold, so two cutter crewmembers, Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Duncan Grant and Seaman Thomas Jennings, bravely went over the side and helped haul them aboard while Cape Horn rolled on her beam ends.
Militello and his 56-year-old uncle Giacomo Ferrara were the last remaining crewmen left to be rescued, but Ferrara was too exhausted to hang on to Cape Horn’s cargo net and he let go and slowly drifted away. Militello was faced with the choice of saving himself immediately or staying with his uncle and hoping for later rescue. He knew his uncle was too weak to keep his head up much longer, and Militello, without a lifejacket, willfully let go of the cargo net, pushed off from the bow of the cutter and accompanied his uncle back into the darkness towards the partially submerged Hattie Rose.
At this point, the helicopter had arrived in the area and Ross directed it to assist in the search for the two lost crewmen. Ross’ crew quickly energized an auxiliary spotlight and with the assistance and direction of the skipper of Paul & Dominic miraculously found Militello and his uncle in the light’s pencil beam. In an effort to rescue Militello and Ferrara, Ross boldly brought his cutter about in the tumult, positioning Cape Horn within 50 feet of the overturned Hattie Rose. Ross’ challenge at this point was to maneuver Cape Horn beam to the seas – in between the men in the water upwind – and the capsized hulk immediately downwind of him.
“Once in position, I risked killing the men with my screws, so essentially I [was in a position where I] could no longer maneuver. I dared not look at the overturned hulk at that point, and just waited for the impact…which fortunately never came, since [the fishing vessel] slipped beneath the waves just in time.”
Guardsmen Grant and Jennings again risked their own lives by going down the cargo net a second time to foist Militello and Ferrara onboard the cutter. The time was 12:20 a.m. The rescue took just 30 minutes. Waves of emotion flooded over the rescued and the rescuers. Ross was demonstrably elated, talking with the helicopter. “We got them all!! We’ve got all six of them here. Unbelievable: 25-foot seas and we had them separated.”
After the crews’ health was verified, Ross released the helicopter to return to Air Station Cape Cod. At 3:30 a.m., February 8, 1980, Ross and Cape Horn, with Militello and his soggy crew, pulled in to Coast Guard Station Provincetown. Militello and his crew were met by family and friends who cried and sobbed uncontrollably with happiness and joy. Ross and his crew, divested of their precious human cargo, had little time to celebrate, knowing they had to return to Woods Hole to refuel and complete the rest of their assigned patrol.
Soon after this heroic rescue, the mayor and citizens of Gloucester, Massachusetts, presented Ross and his crew with a bronze medallion called “The Mariner’s Medal of the City of Gloucester for Courage at Sea.” Gloucester had not awarded this medal to any Coast Guard cutter before and has not awarded one since the Hattie Rose rescue. Bill Ross and his crew received the Coast Guard Commendation Medal along with the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation for their heroism on the night of February 7, 1980. The skipper of Paul & Dominic, Gaetano Barncaleone, was awarded the Coast Guard Public Service Commendation for his heroic role in helping coordinate the rescue of Militello’s crew.
Bill Ross served aboard six ships and commanded three of them in a 26 year Coast Guard career. He recently retired as a Captain and is now the Deputy Federal Security Director for the Transportation Security Administration at the Philadelphia Airport. Skipper Anthony Militello still lives in Gloucester with his wife and three children, but no longer makes his living as a fisherman.