The 50th anniversary of the Seaham lifeboat disaster in which five lifeboatmen and four survivors they had rescued from a fishing cobble, including a nine-year-old boy, lost their lives was marked with a special service on Nov 17 last year.
Volunteers based at Sunderland, Tynemouth, and Hartlepool RNLI stations and family members of both the lifeboat crew and the cobble took part in the short memorial service before laying wreaths at sea.
That afternoon of Nov 17, 1962, the cobble Economy put to sea to shoot her lines and at that time, there was a moderate swell and fair visibility. On board were the joint owners Joseph Kennedy and Gordon Burrell, his brother Donald Burrell and his nine-year-old son David, and George Firth.
At about 1545, the cobble began to head back to harbour. When she was about two miles away, the weather suddenly turned into a gale, with a heavy sea. As she was starting to founder off Dawdon Colliery, the cobble set off a red rocket and about 10 minutes later, the lifeboat could be seen heading towards them.
The Seaham Liverpool class lifeboat George Elmy had been launched when it was realised ashore that the cobble would have difficulty in returning to harbour because of the storm. The lifeboat crew comprised Coxswain John Miller, Second Coxswain Frederick Gippert, Mechanic Arthur L Brown and crew members James Farrington and Arthur Brown.
The lifeboat went alongside the Economy several times to take off the four men and the boy, then set out back to harbour. With winds gusting upto 80mph, the lifeboat was just 30 yards from the south pier at the entrance to the harbour when she was hit by two huge waves and capsized.
A huge search and rescue operation was immediately launched that involved residents from the town, the police, the fire brigade, the Volunteer Lifesaving Brigade, lifeboats from Sunderland and Hartlepool, and a RAF Coastal Command Shackleton aircraft from Kinloss. That evening, Donald Burrell was found alive. He had clung to the propeller shafts of the upturned lifeboat which was washed ashore on the beach near the Pinnacle Rocks. All five crew of the lifeboat and the three other fishermen and Donald’s son David were lost.
To commemorate the gallantry of the lifeboatmen, the RNLI flag was hung in St John’s Church, Seaham. After the 2012 memorial service, Paul Nicholson, the senior helmsman at Sunderland RNLI, said: “It was a very emotional but important moment for the current RNLI volunteers to join the families to remember those who were lost during that fateful night at Seaham Harbour.