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The story of the Helen Blake and the Mexico

Today, 20 February 2014, we remember the brave lifeboat volunteers who courageously served in the 1914 Mexico rescue, a 3-day epic that resulted in a devastating total of 10 fatalities – and 12 lives saved.

The story of the Helen Blake and the Mexico

Photo: RNLI

On its 100-year anniversary, we remember the dedication shown by our crew members, who continue to inspire the RNLI and our mission to save more lives at sea.

The loss of the Helen Blake

On 20 February 1914, the Wexford village of Fethard went into mourning as nine volunteers from RNLI Fethard Lifeboat Station gave their lives in attempt to save the crew of the Norwegian ship Mexico.

On that fateful day, the Mexico was on the final leg of her journey from South America to Liverpool. Unexpectedly, weather conditions took a turn for the worse and the Mexico lost control in sudden severe gales and strong tides.

The Mexico was sucked into the dangerous waters surrounding South Keeragh Island and struggled against heavy sea swells. Fortunately, the 14-man volunteer crew of RNLI Fethard had spotted the Mexico from shore and prepared to launch to her rescue. The storm quickly amplified and, as the RNLI crew approached, they were struck by a gigantic wave.

Water immediately filled the lifeboat and, before the volunteers could react, they were hit by four further blows. The waves hurled the lifeboat against the rocks. She was smashed to pieces.

Of the 14 Fethard crew members, 9 were washed away in the impact, leaving the remaining 5 with no choice but to scramble onto the island.

Island survivors

Despite all that the volunteers had just endured, they continued to help rescue the eight-man crew of the Mexico, as the boat now sat trapped among the island rocks. Using ropes, they managed to transfer the crew to the shore. Saved, but stranded, the men remained without food, water or shelter for 3 days. One crew member from the Mexico succumbed to exposure.

On Saturday 21 February, the RNLI lifeboat crews of Kilmore, Wexford and Dunmore East were called to help in the escalating emergency.

Despite their best efforts, the Kilmore and Wexford crews returned to shore after three unsuccessful attempts to get close enough to the island to rescue the men. The Dunmore East lifeboat crew were also forced to return to station, as the sea swells grew larger.

By this time, news of the disaster had reached London. Upon hearing the story, the Chief Inspector of Lifeboats, Commander Thomas Holmes, headed for Fethard.

He arrived at around 3pm on Sunday. Earlier that day the Dunmore East crew had re-attempted to rescue the men, but to no avail. The aggressive seas still wouldn’t allow their lifeboat, Fanny Harriet, close enough to the island.

One more go

At 6am on Monday 23 February, the Chief Inspector and Dunmore East lifeboat crew launched Fanny Harriet one more time. Eventually, they were able to anchor their position close enough to the island.

The crew fired a cod line, which was attached to a small rowing boat. The boat was the best available, but she was flimsy and quickly filled with water, crashing against the rocks before even reaching the island.

The lifeboat crew refused to give up and desperately tried to persuade the shipwrecked survivors to be pulled through the water using a lifebuoy. The suggestion was risky and only two of the men chanced this lifeline - Fethard Second Coxswain John McNamara and crewman John Kelly. Both were pulled to safety on the lifeboat.

At around 8.15am, the RNLI Wexford crew arrived on scene, bringing a small punt with them. The punt was much sturdier than the rowing boat and two of the Wexford crew members, William Duggan and James Wickham, volunteered to climb aboard and steer her down to the island.

They pulled two men aboard the punt and transferred them to the lifeboat, then set out again to pick up the remaining survivors. On the punts second trip to South Keeragh, rocks pierced a huge hole in her hull.

The crew members made an ingenious temporary fixture by blocking the tear with a loaf of bread and some packaging. This held water from filling the punt until all of the men were rescued and taken aboard the Wexford lifeboat. The eight-man crew from the Mexico were then transferred to Waterford, where they were treated and well cared for after their horrific ordeal.

The Mexico legacy

This shipwreck left 3 widows and 16 orphans to mourn the loss of their loved ones at sea, which included 9 crewmen from the Fethard lifeboat – Coxwain Christopher Bird, William Bird, Thomas Handrick, Michael Handrick, James Morrissey, Patrick Cullen, Patrick Butler, William Bandville and Patrick Roche. Lifeboat volunteer Richard Bird survived the rescue but died 2 years later from the injuries he had received.

The story touched many people and the courage of the RNLI crews involved was globally recognised. Commander Holmes was presented with a Silver Medal for Gallantry and a special vote of thanks for his efforts in the disaster. The Second Service Clasp was awarded to the Dunmore East Coxswain Walter Power, as well as crewmen James Wickham and William Duggan, the two who had launched the punt that saved the endangered men. William and James were also honoured with diplomas from the King of Norway and special gold medals from the GAA - the only time the association has presented these medals for achievements off the sporting field.

This disaster will always be remembered as one of the most tragic and courageous rescues in RNLI history and, as we mark its 100th anniversary, we pay special thanks to our volunteers of past and present, who selflessly dedicate themselves to ending the preventable loss of lives at sea.

Today’s RNLI Fethard lifeboat helm Eoin Bird, whose great uncle was Coxswain Christopher Bird, says: ‘It is hard for us to imagine what they must have gone through at that time. Today our lifeboat crews have state-of-the-art equipment and kit. Those lifeboat men rowed out to the island with their only thought being to save the lives of that crew. I am very proud to be a descendent and to be a lifeboat man today.’