When a cruel sea took the heroes of Penlee

This story on the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster won the National Association of Press Agencies Feature of the Year Award for 2005. It appeared in the Sunday Express Review section on June 26, 2005 - pages 49, 50 and 51 - by Nick Constable

Widows and families bereaved in the 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster have spoken for the first time of their bewildering grief as a shocked nation paid tribute to eight brave crewmen.

In an exclusive series of interviews with the Sunday Express one woman admits she never forgets how her brother's death bought her a home - their mother's share of the £3 million disaster fund.

A widow recalls her shock at learning how some of the money - then unimaginable wealth in the tiny Cornish fishing village of Mousehole - was for her.

As cash and cheques arrived in bulging letters, parcels, bags and buckets she thought the public was fundraising for a new RNLI lifeboat.

There are stories of dreadful coincidences - the volunteer crewman who joined the rescue only because he'd arrived home early for a family wedding; the son turned away from the launch as his father sailed to his death; the widow who had a powerful premonition of disaster.

Perhaps most touching of all is the revelation that relatives listened on home scanners to the lifeboat's last, desperate radio messages as it battled through mountainous seas to reach the stricken coaster Union Star.

The entire crew of the lifeboat Solomon Browne, and eight aboard the Union Star, including two teenage girls, lost their lives.

Janet Madron, 53, widow of Penlee lifeboat mechanic Stephen, remembers how he woke her up early on the morning of December 19th to see the sunrise.

'He told me the sky was very red and angry-looking,' she said. 'I suppose I didn't think it was worth getting out of bed.

'Over the years I've often wished I had. I wish I'd shared that moment with him.

'That day Stephen had watched the weather deteriorating. By evening he was on standby for the lifeboat and got the call just before I arrived home with my daughter from a children's party. The storm outside was dreadful and worsening the whole time.

'As he was leaving I had this awful feeling. I said: "I don't want you to go". I'd never said anything like that before; never felt like that before.

'Stephen said: "I've got to go, there's women and children out there.' And that was that. There's nothing I could have said that would have made any difference and we both knew it.

'Afterwards I listened to the rescue unfold on our radio scanner. I cooked Stephen some dinner and put it in the Rayburn to keep hot but as I opened the door I thought: "He's not coming back to eat this". I don't know why I felt like that. It was a bad storm but storms are not unusual.'

She said Mr Madron was an experienced seaman who started his working life as a fisherman, became coxswain on the Trinity House (lighthouse) boat and later ferried pilots to ocean-going ships.

He began his RNLI service as a runner - a rookie crew member who responds to call-outs in the hope of being selected - and became 2nd coxswain at Penlee in 1970. As the mechanic, he was the only full-time RNLI employee aboard the lifeboat.

'The last words I heard from Stephen were the last anyone heard from the Solomon Browne,' said Mrs Madron, who had two children aged five and two at the time.

'He said they'd got four people off and for a moment I thought everything was going to be all-right. Then there was just silence from the boat.

'Every few minutes I'd hear the the same radio message: 'Falmouth Coastguard to Penlee Lifeboat'. They kept calling, calling, calling. But never a reply.

'Eventually I rang my father. He walked over the cliffs to see what was going on. By the time he got back it was obvious they were lost. I remember Dad sitting beside me and holding my hand. He said: 'No man could live in those seas love.'

'Even then I thought Stephen might be safe. I tried to believe he'd got on to rocks. But when the doctor arrived at our door nothing else needed to be said.

'Every day after that was harder. We still had to give our children a Christmas. We couldn't discuss anything in front of them. The media were everywhere in Mousehole and were sometimes so insensitve. One woman reporter's opening line was to ask how I felt being without a breadwinner. I'd never even thought about that.

'It was days before the purpose of the Penlee Disaster Fund even dawned on me. I thought the public was donating money for a new lifeboat. My sister had to explain that it was for us.

'My family and people in Mousehole were like guard dogs. When a woman wrote to the papers saying it was disgusting that so much money had been donated my sister wrote back pointing out that I really would rather see my husband walk through the door.

'In all this though, I did understand that the media had a job to do. If it hadn't been for them we'd never have received so much financial help.

'Obviously I still think about Stephen. Christmas is the hardest time, particularly the 19th, and I would like to close my eyes in December and open them again on January 1st.

'But life has to go on and fundraising for the RNLI has helped me. Working in the shop, organising fetes and cream teas, selling flags, doing sponsored walks - it doesn't leave much time.'

Annette Smith, 43 was the sister of crewman Kevin Smith, 23. She now has four children and three grandchildren of her own and works part-time as a car park attendant in Mousehole. Her journalist mother Pat died five years ago.

'The irony is that Kevin should never even have been on the shout,' she said.

'He was a merchant seamen with Cunard and wasn't due to come home until the following week for his brother's wedding. But he arrived on December 16th and was watching a dinosaur film on the TV with my eldest son when the maroons went off.

'Dad had every radio scanner going so we already knew the Union Star was in trouble. Kevin headed straight for the door, said something like "God, what a night," and then he was gone.

'Dad kept listening to the talk between the lifeboat and the coastguard. Then he came down and said: "They've lost contact. It's probably the weather." But not long after that there were reports of debris - matchwood really - and diesel on the shore.

'Even though we feared the worst we didn't give up hope. Mum said that Kevin was brave and strong and that he'd be all right. She clung to the hope that he was on rocks somewhere. But she had to face the truth and she was never the same again. Something died inside her that day.

'Kevin and I were so close - we did everything together as kids. We moved to Mousehole from Sheffield and he immediately took to the sea. He would mess around in boats endlessly and lied about his age so that he could get chosen as a runner for the lifeboat.

'Mum tried to talk him out of lifeboat duty. She didn't like the idea that one day he was pulling bodies out the of the water, the next he was at school. Kevin didn't take any notice and he already had an RNLI bravery award by the time of the Penlee Disaster.

'Losing a husband is bad enough but, for a mother, losing your child is so hard. You expect to die before your kids and mum mourned Kevin every single day of her life.

'She also blamed herself because she'd brought us all down to live in what she thought was this beautiful, safe place.

'When the money started coming in we thought it would be a few pounds, to buy the kids Christmas presents. Then within days it became thousands and thousands. Mum bought all her children houses from the share she received.

'People come to my house and tell me I'm lucky to live somewhere so nice. But it never goes out of my head, the way I got my home. And I hope that when it passes to my children they won't forget the reason they live there and that their Uncle Kevin was a brave man in a brave crew.

'That crew will never be forgotten. The winter nights are worst when all the visitors have gone and it's just locals sitting in The Ship.

'You know that eight Mousehole men should be sitting there with you.'

The six others aboard the Solomon Browne were coxswain Trevelyan Richards, 56, assistant mechanic Nigel Brockman, 43, landlord Charlie Greenhaugh, 46, boatman Barrie Torrie, 33, electrician John Blewitt, 43, and fisherman Gary Wallis, 23.

Mr Richards was posthumously given the RNLI's gold medal for bravery. His crew were each awarded a bronze medal. The bodies of Mr Torrie, Mr Smith and Mr Wallis were never recovered.

Of the families involved only the Wallis's have left the community, emigrating to Australia in the 1980s. Mr Richards lived with his mother and was a bachelor with no children. Other bereaved relatives admit that they still cannot bring themselves to talk about the disaster.

In one sense the aftermath of Penlee was clear cut. The £1.5 million Department of Transport inquiry concluded that the Union Star's fuel tanks became polluted by seawater which probably entered through a ventilator valve in the extreme conditions.

It decided the Solomon Browne had been struck by the coaster, although given that the lifeboat's heavy engine compartment was found 300 yards away from the wreck this seems questionable.

The Disaster Fund was more complex. There was national outrage when it became clear donations would be taxed and only the personal intervention of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ensured this didn't happen.

Government lawyers drafted a new interpretation which treated the donations as individual, tax-free gifts. The £3 million was split between eight next-of-kin and the Trustees gratefully disbanded.

Michael Sagar-Fenton, local RNLI committee member and author of the definitive book on the disaster - Penlee: The Loss of a Lifeboat, believes the village overcame impossible odds to regain normality.

'It was just before Christmas, people had money in their pockets and they wanted to give generously,' he said.

'One of the many crosses this community had to bear was that one minute they were bereaved; the next they were handed piles of money. Given the choice every last one would rather have had their men back.

'The fact that they stayed sane and continued to live locally is a tribute to them all.'

Today there are a few, poignant memorials to the sixteen who died - the Soloman Browne's disused lifeboat house, the dimming of Mousehole's Christmas lights every December 19th, a beautiful, and understated glass memorial in nearby Paul Church.

But the truth is that Mousehole has fought its way through the nightmare. As the home of Britain's oldest lifeboat station it has a proud RNLI heritage to uphold. And in its new £2 million Severn class craft the Ivan Ellen, now stationed at Newlyn, it has a world class lifeboat and crew.

Last week coxswain Neil Brockman stood beside her awesome, twin 2,500 horsepower diesel engines and quietly reflected how his father Nigel would have felt to serve on her.

'The Solomon Browne was a fantastic lifeboat,' he said. 'But if they'd had this one, nobody would have died that night.

'Twenty five years makes a big difference and in the Severn class boats the RNLI has given us the best. There's not a lifeboat in the world to touch them.

'The Solomon Browne had 60 HP engines and could do 9 knots at a push. We can do 25 knots. These days we'd get to the Union Star's position in half the time and have everyone off long before she reached the rocks.

'It makes you realise the courage of those men.'

Neil Brockman

Neil Brockman, 41, is the son of the Solomon Browne's assistant mechanic Nigel Brockman, 43. Now full-time coxswain of the current Penlee boat, the Ivan Ellen, he is married with two children.

'I was a runner on the night and my main memory is being right racked off that the coxswain turned me away,' he said.

'Trevelyan Richards said he'd only take one from a family. Dad had already been chosen and I think Trevelyan was trying to let me down gently. There's no way he'd have taken a young lad aboard in those seas.

'Now I'm in his position , I'd say the same myself.

'Quite honestly I wasn't worried about Dad. I was just a kid and it never occurred to me that the boat might be lost. But by 11pm I started thinking; should be job done by now.

'Someone told me that radio contact had been lost. That never happens. You're in a gale, you call in every 15 minutes. I got a neighbour to drive me to Newlyn and spoke to the harbourmaster Andrew Munson, who is now our Lifeboat Operations Manager. He said: 'They can't get hold of them but it could be anything.

'I went home with my mother and brother and waited. As time went on it became obvious what had happened. The Watson-class boats were fantastic - they'd go anywhere with enough sea room - but the crew were caught in the worst possible place in conditions the like of which I never want to see again. It was a terrible time for the families.

'Despite everything there was no shortage of men coming forward to form a new lifeboat crew. I was back within two days of Dad's death. It's in your blood and you can't escape it

Lynn Crawford

Lynn Crawford, of Mousehole, is the widow of crewman Barrie Torrie, a 33-year-old fisherman. She was 25 at the time and their boys were aged four and five. She now works as a hotel receptionist and is married to a detective constable.

'That night we'd organised a babysitter and were going out with friends,' she said.

'When Barrie got the call there was no great fuss. He just said "I'll see you later" and walked out into the night. It was a really bad storm but never for one moment did I think he wouldn't come back.

'I'd noticed a lot of helicopter activity and I remember thinking the rescue was taking a long time. But it wasn't until I got home that I started to worry. One of the girlfriends I'd been with came round and knocked on my door. She said: 'I think there's a problem with the lifeboat.'

'From that point on everything is a blur. Even now it's like it didn't happen. Something on this scale - to lose your husband and so many of your friends' husbands and sons - it's unreal.

'Even when someone told me the lifeboat was lost and Barrie presumed dead I thought; 'well, who says he's dead?' I felt sure he'd be hanging on somewhere. But when the death certificate was issued I had to face the facts.

'Barrie was an incredibly brave man - they all were - and they got so close to saving everyone. I sometimes think that's forgotten. If they believed people were still alive in that sea they would not have left them to die. I don't have the slightest doubt about that.

'At the time there was Christmas to get through. I had to keep things as normal as possible for the children and I would look at our needs for the day and concentrate on them. Bits and bobs of money started coming in and then really large amounts. I remember thinking that at least we wouldn't be homeless.

Later I had to get away and spent 18 months with my parents in Cheshire. But Mousehole is the kind of place that pulls you back. I can't imagine leaving here now.

Statement submitted to the RNLI by Sea King pilot Lt. Cdr Russell L. Smith, an American officer on attachment at Culdrose in 1981.

Throughout the entire rescue evolution the Penlee Crew never appeared to hesitate. After each time they were washed, blown or bumped away from the casualty the Penlee immediately commenced another run-in. Their spirit and dedication was amazing considering the horrific hurricane seas and the constant pounding they were taking. The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am likely to ever see, was the penultimate courage showed by the Penlee when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 foot breakers and rescuing four people (sic)... they were truly the bravest eight men I've ever seen.

RNLI factfile

Latest figures show the RNLI launches 22 times a day on average and saves around 350 lives per year. It operates a fleet of 330 lifeboats at 233 stations and aims to reach 90% of all casualties in inshore waters within 30 minutes. In 2004 it cost around £110 million to run the service, or £300,000 per day. Most crew are unpaid volunteers. Donations can be made to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset, BH15 1HZ or see www.rnli.org.uk

Countdown to disaster (Coastguard Radio Transcript)

On the afternoon of December 19, 1981 the 1400-tonne coaster Union Star was ploughing through heavy seas off southwest Britain, her maiden voyage from Ijmuiden, Holland, to Arklow, in the Irish Republic.

Captain Henry 'Mick' Moreton, 32, had four crew on board plus three unofficial passengers - his wife Dawn and stepdaughters Sharon, 15, and Deanne, 14. The girls were on a brief access visit from South Africa and Moreton was determined the family should spend Christmas together.

At 18.04 he called Falmouth Coastguard to report total engine failure, giving his position as eight miles east of the Wolf Rock, roughly six miles south of Land's End.

Although he had only low-level emergency power, and therefore no radar, Moreton sounded calm. He did not believe his ship was in peril and simply wanted the option of removing his wife and children. He asked that a helicopter be placed on standby.

Falmouth asked Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose to make ready a Sea King and contacted Penlee coxswain Trevelyan Richards suggesting he 'anticipate' a rescue. Richards in turn rang a couple of senior crew to check availability. There was no hint that their RNLI boat, the Watson-class Solomon Browne, faced imminent launch.

The coastguard controller also alerted a powerful salvage tug, the Noord Holland, on permanent station at Penzance.

Its Dutch skipper Guy Buurman called the Union Star offering 'Lloyds Open Form', a standard procedure which meant the stricken ship's owners would have to pay a call-out fee whether or not the tug was needed.

Moreton rejected this. He still believed the engines could be started and was mindful that his owners, Union Transport plc of Kent. would not welcome unnecessary tow bills. A transcript of the radio exchange shows he had no concept of the danger ahead.

18.16 Falmouth Coastguard to Union Star: Have you had a word with the salvage tug skipper?

Union Star: Yes. All he is interested in is the money at the moment. We are holding steady as we are. We don't seem to be drifting into land.

Moreton then gives the ages of the children, adding that 'just at the present moment of time - touch wood - we are not in any major difficulty.'

18.33 Union Star to Falmouth Coastguard: Could you give me the latest on the weather please?

Falmouth Coastguard: Yes. Land's End tells us the wind is just west of south. Force 8 gusting to 10 or 11. The latest shipping forecast for sea area Plymouth at 17.50 is 'Southerly gale 8 to storm 10, decreasing 6 later. Rain at times, poor becoming good. Over.

Union Star: Thank you very much Falmouth. It's all understood.

Falmouth Coastguard: Any news on your engines yet?

Union Star: No, not yet. We are still working on it. We'll let you know later on whether we get a yes or a no on it.

By now the storm was visibly worsening. Tug skipper Buurman decided to head for the Union Star's position, reasoning it would be safer at sea - with a chance of some business - rather than at anchor. The conditions were the worst he'd ever seen.

At 19.00 two events forced rescue co-ordinators to ratchet up the operation.

First the Land's End Coastguard Station, which had been opened to get a better radar fix on the Union Star, warned that the ship was drifting shorewards 2.5 miles further north - ie closer to the coast - than she'd claimed.

Secondly Captain Moreton found the cause of his engine failure. Sea water had entered the ship's fuel tanks making a re-start out of the question. On hearing this Falmouth asked RNAS Culdrose to scramble.

Yet still there was no sense of urgency. The crew of the Sea King, call sign R80, didn't receive the message until 19.20 and weren't airborne until 19.37. This was not officially a Mayday call and the storm wasn't even particularly bad at their base.

Only as they headed west did the wind speed rise, with astonishing speed, from 45 mph to 70 mph, then to gusts above 90mph. Incredibly, the helicopter hit sea spray at a height of 400 ft.

At 19.50 the crew sighted the Union Star. It was now just two miles off the deadly rocks at Tater Dhu point. Time was shorter than anyone dared imagine and at last Penlee got the call to launch.

Soon after 20.00 the Union Star's engineer fired up an auxiliary generator and light flooded the upper decks to assist the Sea King's winchman. But the ship's mast was too tall, and swinging too wildly, for the helicopter to get close. After several brave attempts - in which he was twice almost bludgeoned from the sky - the pilot withdrew.

20.24: R80 to Union Star: Too difficult for us as far as safety is concerned. We're getting very close to your mast and we don't have a long enough line.

Union Star to R80: OK Very much obliged for your assistance. Going to put an anchor down.

It was an act of desperation. The ship now swung from broadside-on to face the giant breakers bows first. This meant approaching rescue vessels could no longer rely on the lee of the hull for protection.

The tug Noord Holland, arriving at the scene just after 20.30, had no chance of getting close - and any crewman attempting to secure a tow rope faced certain death.

By now Moreton must have known there was just one last, desperate chance. The new voice coming over the radio calm, almost casual - was it.

20.47: Penlee Lifeboat to Union Star: Understand you had trouble with the chopper...do you want for us to come alongside and take the women and children, over.

Union Star to Penlee Lifeboat: Yes please. The helicopter is having a bit of difficulty getting to us so if you could pop out I'll be very much obliged, over.

There was a brief delay while the frustrated crew of the Sea King tried once more to drop a line on board. When this failed, the Solomon Browne closed in. The coastline was barely 500 yards away.

20.54: Penlee Lifeboat to Union Star: Advise you with crew, everybody to come off, over.

Union Star to Penlee Lifeboat: Yes we're all coming off.

For the next half hour the Solomon Browne made impossibly heroic attempts to get alongside the coaster in winds touching 100 mph. At one point she was actually flipped on top before sliding, stern first, back into the waves. Finally, with the rocky shore barely 50 yards away, Coxswain Richards spotted a few seconds respite and stole alongside.

21.21 Penlee Lifeboat to Falmouth Coastguard. This is the Penlee Lifeboat. Penlee Lifeboat calling Falmouth Coastguard.

Falmouth Coastguard: Penlee Lifeboat. Go.

Penlee Lifeboat: We got four men off - look, er, hang on - we got four off at the moment er ma.. - male and female. There's two left on board...

There was a loud noise and the message ended. Radio contact was lost.

Yet the Solomon Browne herself was not lost. The helicopter crew, returning to base, saw her battling out to sea even after that last message. Guy Buurman in the Noord Holland saw her silhouetted on the crest of a wave and reported at 21.45 that she was 'very close to shore.'

What seems certain is that Trevelyan Richards and his crew went back for two people on board and two in the water. No one witnessed the Solomon Browne's last, valiant moments but, right at the end, it seems the Union Star snagged a reef and was tipped upside down - possibly dragging the lifeboat into the maelstrom.

For the rest of the night, the people of Mousehole huddled by their radio scanners desperately hoping for news. They heard nothing but the regular, hopeless calls of the coastguard and Sea King, occasionally punctuated by fishing skippers in nearby Newlyn harbour.

Penlee Life Penlee Lifeboat, Falmouth Costguard, over.

Penlee Lifeboat. Rescue Eight Zero. If you read me fire one flare...if you read me fire a flare.

Can you hear us Trev?

What is your position?

Do you need any help?

Shall we come out Trev.

Long before first light wreck debris - some bearing the RNLI's distinctive livery - was coming ashore.

And the smell of diesel was on the wind.