AS a fierce storm raged against the North East coast, the call came in that a local fishing boat, Economy, was missing.
Despite driving rain and gale force winds, five crewmen from the RNLI put to sea in the darkness of a November night, finding the stricken trawler and rescuing four men and a nine-year-old boy.
Battling mountainous waves the five turned their lifeboat, the George Elmy, for home – making it within yards of safe harbour before being capsized.
Nine people – John Miller, Frederick Gippert, Arthur L. Brown, James Farrington, Arthur Brown, Gordon Burrell, George Firth, Joseph Kennedy and young David Burrell – died, with only the boy’s father Donald surviving by clinging to the propeller shafts of the upturned boat.
Five decades on, families, friends and present-day lifeboatmen laid a wreath at sea to mark the 50th anniversary of the Seaham lifeboat disaster.
The Bishop of Durham and soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury, Rt Rev Justin Welby, attended a memorial service at St John’s Church.
Valerie Thorpe, the daughter of lifeboat mechanic Arthur L Brown, was just 13 when her father died.
“It was a nice day, being in the lifeboat and seeing the differences between how it was then and what they have now, but it brought back too many bad memories,” she said.
In May 2009 East Durham Heritage Group began a project to restore the George Elmy to her former glory after one of their members spotted the boat for sale on internet auction website ebay.
And soon it is hoped the boat may return to Seaham and take up a permanent home in the town’s 1870s boathouse at North Dock.
Group member Brian Salt was saved by the crew of the George Elmy aged 17, when his father’s fishing boat broke down at sea. He also saw the Economy preparing to put to sea on that fateful day 50 years ago.
He said repairs had taken longer than expected but he hoped the lifeboat may be ready in the new year.
“We did hope to have it ready for this 50th anniversary but the work has taken longer than anticipated and we had a little problem finding spare parts,” he said. “But even without it, it was still a great day.” Paul Nicholson, 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 at sea 50 years ago during that fateful night at Seaham Harbour.
“We all look forward to the moment when we are able to escort the restored George Elmy back into Seaham as a permanent reminder to the sacrifice that our colleagues gave half a century ago.”