North Coast Journal

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Greater love hath no man

by Wally Graves

Later this month when Eureka's Joe Camacho and Ed Hughes are awarded their Carnegie Hero medals for rescuing 12-year-old Patrick Charles Lovel from a burning car on July 10, 1994, the two men will join an exclusive list of North Coast Carnegie medalists dating back to 1909 when, on a hot August day in Willow Creek, Elizabeth Fleckenstein, 22, was swimming in the Trinity River.

Fleckenstein had panicked and gone under.

A 45-year-old butcher named Daniel McGowan swam to her rescue. Fleckenstein grabbed McGowan's leg and took him under once, twice.

He freed himself.

Exhausted, he made it to shore towing the unconscious woman. She was revived, and McGowan became the North Coast's first Carnegie Hero.

Seven years later on July 10, 1916, in the fast-flowing Mattole river at Petrolia, 11-year-old Helen Adams was carried into a deep pool.

A farmhand, Charles Gilbert, 37, swam toward her, but when he was 10 feet away the girl sank and drowned. Gilbert tried to return to shore, but made no progress against the flow.

He, too, was drowned. Gilbert's mother received the North Coast's second bronze medal.

It was in 1901 that Andrew Carnegie sold his coal and steel holdings to J. P. Morgan for $400 million, and decided to give his fortune away. "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced," Carnegie said. He returned to his native Scotland, and from his Skibo castle he dispensed $350 million to good causes (among which is Eureka's Carnegie library, soon to become the Humboldt Arts Council's new home).

Carnegie's Hero Fund, established in 1904, was among the least of his charities. He said, "I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive; but I do believe that, if the hero is injured in his bold attempt to serve or save his fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer pecuniarily."

Carnegie intended his awards not for military or paid emergency workers, but rather for people like Dexter McLellan, 31, an electrician who died on Aug. 22, 1920 trying to save his friend James Spellenberg, 22, while swimming near Fruitland on the south fork of the Eel River.

McLellan extended his arm to Spellenberg who grasped it and tried to climb on McLellan's back. They struggled together but soon sank and were drowned.

With the bronze medal awarded to McLellan's widow came $65 a month with $5 a month additional for each of three children "no benefits to extend beyond 10 years, or the date of the widow's remarriage."

Carnegie's moral code reserved grants to the "sober" and "respectable, well-behaved members of the community." Heroes with earlier checkered pasts were eligible, for they "deserve pardon and a fresh start."

Requa. Sept. 4, 1927.

While night fishing at the mouth of the Klamath River Kirby and Maude Peters and their 13-year-old son Floyd were swept to sea. Their boat capsized in breakers. The mother disappeared, but Floyd and his father clung to their boat.

Ashore, Carl Siedner, 28, who was a very poor swimmer, and James Brooks, 25, hopped a rowboat to the rescue. After being hurled back twice by waves, they rowed through breakers seven feet high. In the dark they searched till they finally reached the capsized Peters boat a quarter of a mile out. They pulled Floyd and his father aboard, searched without success for the lost Mrs. Peters, then rowed their boat stern first toward shore.

By skillful maneuvering, the three men and the boy made it through the breakers.

Seider, with his bronze medal, was awarded $1,000 "for a worthy purpose as needed." Brooks was given $1,600 "for educational purposes as needed."That was sizeable money in 1927. Today's medals to Camacho and Hughes carry with them an automatic $2,500.

In the 90 years of heroes, 7,881 medals have been awarded from 69,222 considerations. Sixteen hundred and six heroes died in the act. In 1993 alone (the latest year for available figures), 16 deaths came with the 94 heroes honored.

Carnegie's initial contribution of $5 million in 5 percent U.S. Steel bonds grew with the years. Twenty-one million dollars has been dispensed through 1993, including $300,000 in that year alone for medals, cash grants, and continued support for surviving dependents, disabled heroes, and educational assistance.

Crescent City's William Joy received $500 back in June 1947, for his unusual courage.

Joy was pilebucking the Crescent City jetty on a blustery Friday the 13th when a rogue wave swept four pilebucks to sea. Three scrambled to the jetty, but a fourth, Harry Curtis, 63, hit his head, broke his arm, and floated unconscious from the jetty, drifting 60 feet away in a strong seaward current a good 275 feet from the beach.

Joy was fully clothed and wearing heavy work shoes. Twice waves knocked him down as he poised to dive to the rescue. A third try led him some 65 feet to Curtis. A wave took them under. Joy lost hold. The pair drifted another 25 feet farther to sea.

Joy regained his grip and towed Curtis in three foot swells to a projecting rock, then another hundred or more feet to a second rock nearer shore, thence another hundred to shallow water.

Joy, who had swallowed water, was nauseated, badly winded, and weak. Both survived. With his bronze medal the $500 went "toward the purchase of a home or other worthy purpose as needed."

But no local Carnegie rescue was more tenacious than that of two brothers, 50-year-old dairyman William Frye, and his brother, logger Greeley Frye, 35, during the great December 1955 floods when they saved four people from drowning in the Klamath River: millwright Clifford Whitney, 46; his wife Pauline, also 46; carpenter Galvin Kerns, 46; and laborer Troy Pickens, 49.

The four, along with Whitney's brother, were stranded atop their sawmill in rising waters. The building collapsed. All were thrown into the debris-laden maelstrom.

Kerns and Pickens managed to grab partially submerged trees forty feet from one another, while the three Whitneys, holding to an inflated rubber mattress, grasped a treetop some two hundred feet farther downstream.

After clinging to the tree for an hour, Whitney's brother floated downstream on the mattress and was drowned after being knocked into the water when the mattress struck the Klamath bridge. The other Whitneys clung to their tree, and eight hours later their cries for help attracted the Frye brothers, who were in a 16-foot rowboat with a five-horse motor searching the submerged pastures for their lost cattle.

The Fryes crossed to within 500 feet of the Whitneys, then returned for a 25-horse motor. To avoid collision with debris in the swift current, William Frye piloted as directed by Greeley, fending off with an oar debris of dead cattle and horses -- and even whole buildings.

They rescued the Whitney couple. Then -- at the Whitneys' insistence -- maneuvered their boat precariously upstream to a 50-foot log extending between the trees in which Pickens and Kerns were marooned. William put the motor in reverse to keep the current from sweeping the boat downstream, and the others held the boat against the log. Greeley aided Pickens and Kerns aboard.

Both William and Greeley received bronze medals, with $750 for the elder William, and $250 for his younger brother.

Drowning and burning account for most of Carnegie's rescues, with assault running a close third in recent years. On the North Coast, the hazard of drowning is most obvious, with burning -- both house and vehicular -- second.

The North Coast's lone silver medal -- in those days reserved for special valor beyond the bronze -- was a "runaway truck" rescue honoring Vernon Hughes of Happy Camp on March 20, 1963.

It happened in the Salmon mountains back of Crescent City.

Hughes, 28 at the time, was driving an empty logging truck down a descending log road behind a loaded dump truck weighing 19 tons driven by James Robertson, 34. Robertson's brakes failed.

Seeing Robertson's truck out of control, Hughes sped up, and after driving close behind Robertson for more than a mile at up to 65 miles an hour, Hughes increased his speed to 70 and passed the runaway.

Watching in his mirrors, Hughes decreased his speed. The runaway struck the rear of his logging truck, the rear boom piercing the runaway's radiator.

Hughes braked. Both trucks slowed, but the dump truck moved in surges which raised the rear of Hughes' logging truck, each time causing Hughes to lose his braking and traction.

Robertson carefully steered his dump truck guiding both vehicles. The trucks traveled locked for a quarter of a mile before Hughes was able to stop them not far from a dangerous highway intersection.

With his silver medal Hughes received $1,000.

Other North Coast medalists include:

 

Now Camacho and Hughes have joined the exclusive group when, according to the laconic Carnegie report, 12-year-old Patrick Lovel "was unconscious in the back seat of his family's burning automobile following a traffic accident.

"Issuing from the rear of the car, flames spread to its interior, covering part of the back seat and ceiling."

"Camacho entered the car partially through its passenger door and seized the boy but was unable to free him." Hughes "then entered the car in a rescue attempt but was likewise unsuccessful. In a subsequent reentry, Camacho pulled on the boy and freed him. The boy was severely burned and required extensive hospitalization. Camacho was treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation, and he recovered." "Hughes recovered from minor burns to his face and arms."

It's one thing to be a hero; it's another to get a medal for it.

I asked Edward Rutkowski, the Carnegie Hero Fund's executive director in Pittsburgh, Pa., how they got wind of heroes, and how they separated the wheat from the chaff.

Rutkowski told me that years ago they conducted on-site investigations, but today it's done long distance.

The Hero Fund Commission subscribes to a clipping service which sent them a Times-Standard story "I've Gotta Try" appearing July 13, 1994, describing how Camacho, engulfed in flames and black smoke, dragged Patrick's mother, Mindy Ann Lovel, 36, from the car, with Hughes escorting her away, and how Hughes and Camacho returned to the blaze and pulled Patrick to safety but not until the flames had melted the boy's seatbelt, so intense was the heat.

Rutkowski's investigators talked to both men, to eyewitnesses, to the Eureka police, to General Hospital, and when all the data was in the heroes were validated.

"You have a wonderful police force," Rutkowski said. "Officer Brandy Fuller sent a thoroughly detailed 18-page report."

The bronze medals for our two latest Carnegie heroes are currently being cast. Today, a hero is a hero. Many years ago the distinction between "bronze" and "silver" was abandoned.


Addendum: in spite of assurances from Pittsburgh that the Carnegie Hero medalists are carefully researched, a discordant version of Camacho's and Hughes' heroism is held by the Lovel family. I was told by Patrick's mother, Mindy Ann Lovel, that neither Camacho nor Hughes pulled Patrick from their burning car -- rather, the rescuers were Patrick's older brothers, one who was a passenger, and a second who was in another car on scene.
But that's another story.

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