November 13, 1901: Sometimes the Rescuers Become Victims (Caister Lifeboat disaster)

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A Brief History

On November 13, 1901, a British lifeboat crew answered the distress flares of a small ship in peril off the coast of Norfolk, England, only to suffer terrible hardships in attempting to launch their lifeboat from shore to go to the sailors in peril.  So hazardous were the conditions, that the lifeboat ended up being turned over on top of the crewmen, causing 9 of the heroic rescuers to drown.  Cases in which rescuers end up being killed or severely injured themselves are not at all rare, and today we will discuss a few such cases.

Digging Deeper

Attempts to rescue drowning victims has historically been one of the deadliest forms of rescue attempt.  So prevalent are cases of the rescuers drowning while the original victim often survives that terminology naming the circumstance has been developed, Aquatic Victim Instead of Rescuer Syndrome, or AVIR.  Drowning people often are in such a state of panic and terror that they violently grab at rescuers and end up pulling the rescuer underwater while keeping their own head above water. Researchers point out that rescuers are often actually less capable swimmers than the person in danger, but the rescuers nonetheless bravely tries to make the rescue that seems so necessary when in fact rescue is sometimes not needed, as the struggling person makes it to shore or some sort of safety anyway.  A real life situation concerned the father of this author back in the 1940’s.  While fishing from the rocks (break wall) of Lake Erie at Cleveland, Ohio, a teen slipped into the water and began to drown.  My uncle jumped in to save the other teen but was nearly drowned by the victim pulling my uncle under the water.  My father, also a teen at the time, jumped in and approached the drowning boy from the back, grabbing the victim’s hair and towing him to shore in that unconventional though ultimately successful manner.  Parents often try to rescue children and end up drowning themselves, while more capable rescue swimmers rescue the child.  The urgency of a drowning situation often causes people to act before thinking, brave yes, but often rash to the point of endangering the rescuer.

Children have drowned in buckets and toilets.

In the Caister Lifeboat Disaster noted above, the light ship (not a reference to weight, but to the purpose of the ship as a floating lighthouse) in peril fired off distress flares at about 11 pm which were seen by the lifeboat crew stationed on shore.  The crew attempted to launch the  lifeboat Beauchamp, a Norfolk and Suffolk-class non-self-righting lifeboat (does not automatically go back to right-side-up if it turns over) that weighed a hefty 5.1 tonnes (metric tons) without gear.  The Beauchamp was 36 feet long and 10.5 feet wide, needing a team of 36 men to bring the boat ashore on its launching skids.  Finally getting the heavy lifeboat in the water, the rescue crew made for the stricken light ship, but were foiled by the severe weather.  Returning to shore at about 3 am, the lifeboat violently struck the beach and promptly flipped upside down (capsized), trapping some men under the boat.  Of the 12 rescuers aboard the Beauchamp, 3 were pulled to safety and 8 were later found under the boat drowned.  The other drowned rescuer did not wash up on the beach until the following year.  An investigation into the tragedy caused investigators to question why the lifeboat crew would take a nearly suicidal chance to attempt the rescue.  A survivor explained the heroic mindset of such brave men, “They would never give up the ship. If they had to keep at it ’til now, they would have sailed about until daylight to help her. Going back is against the rules when we see distress signals like that.”  Those brave words were later paraphrased by the English press as “Caister men never turn back.”  Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) adioe\ted the motto, “Never Turn Back.”  The Beauchamp, which had entered service in 1892, never was placed back on duty and was later broken up.  During her career the lifeboat had participated in 81 rescue missions and saved 146 people.  The Caister lifeboat station has been responsible for well over 1200 lives saved, the most by any British lifeboat station.

Other forms of peril that generate rescue attempts also often cost the lives of brave rescuers.  The recent (2018) Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand to save 12 boys and their coach from a soccer team marooned deep in a cave by floodwater was ultimately successful after an incredible and nearly miraculous rescue that unfortunately cost 1 rescuer his life when the rescue diver drowned in the convoluted passage underwater in the cave.  That much publicized rescue attempt involved over 1000 rescuers.

Rescue personnel and equipment at the cave entrance

Police and firemen are often faced with the immediate need to act quickly to save people from a variety of dangers, including fires, people with weapons, natural disasters and the like.  The average (over the past decade or so) of 102 firefighter deaths each year is indicative of the dangers involved in being a hero.  About 150 police officers die on the job each year in the United States, many of which are responding to calls to save lives, such as the Sergeant killed at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California on November 8, 2018.  Sgt. Ron Helus rushed in where a gunman was shooting bar patrons (killing a dozen people) only to be killed himself while trying to stop the carnage.  Too many other officers die when assisting at traffic accidents and when helping broken down motorists as well.  The 2018 wildfires ravaging California have killed a few dozen people, at least 42 as of this writing, and 200 people remain missing.  With over 8000 firefighters battling the blazes in winds up to 70mph, the work is highly dangerous.  At least 6 California firefighters fighting wildfires have died in 2018.  The falling of the Twin Towers in New York City during the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 killed an incredible 50 police officers, 343 firefighters, 1 fire patrol officer and 8 EMT/paramedics that were trying to save people in the World Trade Center as the enormous buildings burned and then collapsed.  How many rescuers have died since from disease related to toxic exposure during their rescue attempts is unknown, but probably considerable.

Mountain rescues are fraught with danger for rescuers as much as any other sort of rescue attempt.  The Mountain Rescue Association lists 37 line of duty deaths of American rescuers on mountain rescues.  Other forms of search and rescue have also resulted in many deaths over the years.  Do you remember constantly being told about the “mysterious” disappearance of a flight of 5 US Navy Avenger torpedo bombers in the Bermuda Triangle (1945)?  A flying boat sent to search for them never returned, possibly crashing and blowing up killing all 13 aboard.  Life flight type rescue helicopters have crashed, killing the would be rescuers of these life saving hospital choppers (one of which helped save the author’s life in 2012).

Life Flight Sikorsky S-76 Helicopters at the Cleveland Air Show

Of course, military rescue attempts are often the most costly, with rescue missions such as that staged in 1980 to rescue Americans being held hostage by Iranian militants having killed 8 American servicemen and wounding another 4 in the failed effort.  The invasion of Grenada in 1983 (Operation Urgent Fury) was supposed to be a rescue attempt of the medical students trapped on the island that had just undergone a violent overthrow of their government and the deposed Governor General Paul Scoon.  The multi-service operation cost 19 American military lives and another 116 wounded.  The Son Tay prisoner of war camp raid in North Vietnam in 1970, Operation Ivory Coast, was mounted by US Special Forces to rescue Americans being held prisoner by North Vietnam.  In this highly dangerous rescue attempt, 56 US military men went up against 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and got away without any Americans being killed, and only 2 Americans wounded.  Unfortunately, the raid failed to rescue any American POW’s as the POW’s had been moved prior to the raid.

People are not the only heroes!  Dogs have saved many human lives, and sometimes have done so at the cost of their own life.  An incredibly courageous Dachshund saved his owner from an attack by a bear, only to get mauled itself.  Though this particular canine hero lived to survive her wounds, there have been multiple similar Dachshund saving their owner incidents, some of which sadly resulted in the death of the hero-dog.  (Yes, it is true that other dogs save human lives, sometimes at great cost to themselves, but Dachshunds are unquestionably the bravest of these heroic hounds. Just google something like “Dachshund saves owner from bear” and you will see what we mean.)

Illustration of dachshund baying a European badger

In these few examples you can see just how dangerous it can be to attempt to rescue a person or persons in peril.  Good advice to would be rescuers is to take a moment to thoroughly think through the rescue attempt before rushing into a situation that perhaps can be worse than the original incident.  Either way, we do applaud all those brave men, women and children (and of course, dogs), that valiantly try to rescue others even at the threat of death or serious injury to themselves.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you personally know of anyone who risked their life to save another person?  Do you personally know of anyone killed while attempting a rescue?  Do you have any heroic rescue stories to share?  Do you know anyone whose dog saved them or a family member?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Red Cross Collie, Italy, 1909.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Aronson, Marc. Rising Water: The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue. Simon and Schuster Digital, 2019.

Fury, Sam. Swim Workouts and Water Rescue Skills: Techniques to Swim Faster, Longer, and Safer. Survival Fitness Plan, 2017.

Russell, Joan. Trust Your Dog: Police, Firefighters, and Military Officers Talk About Their K-9 Partners. Lindholm Press, 2013.

The featured image in this article is a photograph by Evelyn Simak from of a memorial to the nine lifeboatmen who lost their lives when their boat capsized in a storm on 14 November 1901.  The memorial is located across the road from > 807525 in the northwestern corner of the old cemetery on Ormesby Road.   This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Evelyn Simak and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.