U.S. Lifesaving Service and U.S. Coast Guard
Fighting against both the treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras as well as the numerous causalities of warfare were the local lifesaving stations and later Coast Guard stations of North Carolina.
In 1874, in response to the shipwrecks that plagued the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the first seven lifesaving stations were built along the North Carolina Coast. As pioneers of The Lifesaving Service, the early recruits, often local residents who were familiar with the treacherous waters and how to navigate them, turned the ragtag lifesaving stations into flagship operations. The fearless crews of the early lifesaving stations provided a number of tales of heroism that are still told and re-told amongst locals today.
One of the most adventurous lifesaving endeavors took place in December of 1884. The cargo ship Ephraim Williams was headed home to Savannah, Georgia from Providence, Rhode Island with a supply of pine lumber when it was tangled in the rough weather and waters off Cape Hatteras and became waterlogged. The crews of the Cape Hatteras, Durant's (Hatteras) Creed's Hill and Big Kinnakeet (Avon) Lifesaving Stations saw the ship stranded but was unable to help. The weather, which the experienced surfmen claimed was the worst they had ever seen, kept the crews on alert on the beach, waiting for a sign from the sinking ship that there were survivors on board. During the night, the boat floated 7 miles northeast, across from the Big Kinnakeet Station. At 10:30 a.m. the men from the Hatteras Island lifesaving stations finally saw a sign- a flag raised to half mast to indicate a distress signal. Benjamin B. Dailey, leader of the Cape Hatteras Lifesaving Station and his crew immediately launched their boat, and the crew of Big Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station soon followed.
Few people on shore thought the rescue would be successful, and most believed the crews that foolishly rushed out to save the survivors would never return. Dailey's crew maneuvered through the inner bar and the more treacherous outer bar, timing their rowboat strokes to drift past the enormous breaking waves. The Big Kinnakeet crew was unable to get through, and waited to see if Dailey could make it to the floundering Ephraim Williams. Indeed, the crew was able to pull close enough to the waterlogged ship to toss a line to the captain and rescue the men one by one. Dailey's boat, with 16 people on board, nine of which were survivors from the Ephraim Williams, cautiously but successfully made their way back to shore. The rescue of the nine men, from the time the Ephraim Williams was spotted, had taken 90 hours.
On August 17, 1899, the captain and crew of the schooner Robert W. Casey were driven ashore by an east-northeast hurricane with very high surf and tide. The crew of the Little Kinnakeet Station, which is still visible from NC Highway 12 between Avon and Salvo, immediately headed to the beach and patiently waited for their chance to row out to the ship to bring the stranded crew ashore. All seven men aboard the boat were rescued and brought back to the station for food, clothing and supplies, and the captain and crew of the Robert W. Casey submitted a letter to the U.S. Lifesaving Service. After explaining the circumstances of their shipwreck, the captain and crew wrote the following:
"We also wish to say that these noble, gallant, and heroic life-savers do most dreadfully suffer hardships of life to save, protect and take care of sailors who may be cast into their care. There was nothing left undone by the acting keeper and crew of the above-named station. They performed their duties most nobly."
One of the most famous stations was Rodanthe village. Having undergone a complete renovation, it is also one of the most popular attractions on Hatteras Island, drawing thousands of visitors every year. One of the most famous stories originating from this station was the rescue of the crew of the British tanker, the Mirlo, which was hit by torpedoes off the coast of the Outer Banks by a German U-Boat.
On August 16, 1918, at 4:30 p.m., the The Chicamacomico Life Saving Station lookout reported seeing a huge spray of water shoot into the air, indicating that the ship had been hit. By 5:00 p.m., the crew of the Chicamacomico Station was launching a surfboat, heading out to the burning wreckage. The water was calm enough to swim to the wreckage, but the ocean was covered with burning oil, black smoke and flames. The lifesaving crew spotted six men clinging to a rowboat. Later, the survivors reported that they had to duck under water frequently to save themselves from being burned to death. The crew rescued the six men and looked for the other five men who had been aboard the Mirlo, but they were nowhere to be found, and the flames made an extensive search virtually impossible.
By 9:00 p.m., the crew and the survivors of the Mirlo had made it safely back to shore. The Chicamacomico crew eventually received 6 Crosses of Honor, out of 11 Crosses of Honor ever given.
The early lifesaving stations eventually became the United States Coast Guard, and while all of the original stations are no longer in use, having been abandoned, destroyed or preserved by the National Park Service and other non-profit groups, the U.S. Coast Guard still patrols area waters and has several stations located along the North Carolina Coast. As recently as May 2007, when an Outer Banks Nor'easter threatened three sailboats traveling down the coastline of the Outer Banks, the Coast Guard continuously performs rescues along the Graveyard of the Atlantic.