The Mate's Radio Call
By James Donahue
He didn't know it at the moment, but First Mate Elmer
Fleming's last second effort to send a radio call for help saved his life.
Fleming was aboard the freighter Carl D. Bradley as the
ship was breaking up under his feet during a Lake Michigan gale on Nov. 18, 1958. The boat went down so quickly and so unexpectedly
crew members barely had time to get life jackets on before they were in the water.
But Fleming's impulsive action at 5:31 p.m. saved Fleming
and only one other member of the Bradley's ill-fated crew. Deckhand Frank Mayes also survived the sinking.
Charles Petitt, radio operator at the Charlevoix, Mich.
Coast Guard station, heard the signal. The message came through loud and clear: "Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Carl
D. Bradley. Our position is approximately 12 miles southwest of Gull
Island. We are in serious trouble," the voice said. Petitt said there
was a moment of silence. "Then I could hear someone shouting 'Run, grab life jackets. Get the jackets.' Then there was another
'mayday' and 'the ship is breaking up.'"
Fleming later said he didn't know if the radio signal
was heard by anybody. But that message launched a major sea and air search that led to a Coast Guard recovery the next morning
of the open life raft that Fleming and Mayes were sharing. No other survivors were found.
Fleming said he was working in the pilot house with Capt.
Roland Bryan, as the ship was steaming empty from Gary, Indiana, toward its home port of Rogers City, when the trouble started.
"I heard a heavy thud from somewhere in the ship and an
alarm bell began to clang. I spun around and looked back aft down the deck. I saw the stern of the boat was sagging and knew
we were in trouble," he said.
After sending the radio signals, Fleming said he stepped
out on deck and was starting to inspect a raft located near the pilot house when the boat turned over on its side, throwing
both him and the raft in the water.
Mayes said he was working below deck when the ship started
breaking up. He said he ran up on deck at the first alarm, just in time to also be flung into the water when the Bradley capsized.
He came to the surface a few feet from Fleming's raft and managed to get on it.
"We looked back at the ship and saw the stern go straight
down," Fleming said. "There was an explosion when the last part o the stern went under. That was when the water hit the boilers."
Two other sailors joined Fleming and Mayes on the raft,
but both were lost during the night when the raft was flipped over several times by the angry seas.
"After the first flip, Fleming and I were the only persons
to make it back and we were alone the rest of the time," Mayes said. "I was never so cold in my life."
Mayes said he did a lot of praying that night while holding
on to the hand lines and waiting for dawn. He said his hands got numb and ice was forming on his hair and jacket.
His prayers were answered. When the Coast Guard rescue
ship Sundew picked them up after 14 hours in the water, both men were suffering from exposure, but were in relatively good
condition after their ordeal.
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