By 3 p.m. there was 4-5 feet of water in the lower lying areas of Galveston. By 3:30 p.m. a report reached the cutter Galveston describing scenes of devastation and death.
Charles S. Root, second assistant engineer, United States Revenue Cutter Service, volunteered to take a group to shore in a rowboat. Eight members of the crew stepped forward to help.
They quickly launched the boat and then got out and dragged it over the railroad tracks on 14th street. Rowing through the neighborhoods they found people attempting to swim and others clinging to flotsam (debris) floating in the water. As the conditions got more and more severe, they hauled one after another person into the rowboat until they had 13 and were sitting very low in the water. They headed back to the Galveston and unloaded the passengers. Because the conditions had gotten so dangerous, Root asked for volunteers to go back out to attempt more rescues. The same eight men stepped forward.
This time was much tougher. The storm was now at its height with winds blowing up to 100 miles per hour. Flying debris became life threatening projectiles. They were no longer able to row against the wind and current as night set in. They pushed on, finding more and more people that would certainly have died if they hadn’t been there.
The men moved the boat by jumping overboard and walking or swimming the boat from the leeward side of one building to another as they attempted to dodge flying debris and see through the wind and rain and darkness. Seaman James Bierman took the bow line and swam it from one structure to the protected side of the next, then hauled the boat to the relative safety of the new area. Then he’d repeat the same thing over and over again as his comrades pushed the boat and grabbed more and more victims.
Finally, when they’d collected some 21 people, they pulled the boat into the leeward side of a strong building, secured it, and helped everyone inside. They pushed on but it became too rough and too dangerous so they sheltered in another building at about 8 p.m.
Three hours later the wind let up enough for the crew to venture out again and they rowed back to the cutter Galveston with the entire crew intact.
Charles S. Root and James Bierman of United States Revenue Cutter Service were awarded gold medals of the U.S. Lifesaving Service by the secretary of the treasury for heroic conduct in saving and assisting in the rescue of 34 persons from drowning during the memorable hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900 at Galveston. The rest of the crew received silver medals. Details can be found on the US Coast Guard website at: http://www.uscg.mil/history/awards/GoldLSM/8SEP1900.asp
I personally witnessed many acts of equal valor by lifeguards, firefighters and police during Hurricane Ike. Good to know the potential for that level of self-sacrifice and heroism lives on.
Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity. Information on the Beach Patrol is at galvestonbeachpatrol.com.