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Baltimore captain was a hero during daring rescue

Several columns ago, I wrote about the 160th anniversary of the foundering of the HMS Birkenhead off the West African coast that established the maritime tradition of "women and children first" when it comes time to evacuate a stricken vessel.

My good friend, Helen Delich Bentley, the former congresswoman and former federal maritime commissioner, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Baltimore Sun that I had overlooked one of the most dramatic Atlantic sea rescues of all time, when the Missouri, out of Baltimore, rescued all passengers and crew from the steamer Danmark in 1889.

I uncorked this sea tale many high tides ago, in 2002, and because of Bentley's letter and a new generation of readers, will be delighted to tell it again, especially as we are on the cusp of the anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic a century ago.

Under the command of Capt. Hamilton Murrell, 25, who lived in Ruxton and later Eutaw Place, the Atlantic Transport Co. steamer Missouri departed West Hartlepool, England, on March 28, 1889.

This was the Missouri's second westbound voyage since entering service in January, and the captain's second voyage as its master.

The 4,200-ton ship, with its distinctive three masts, black-striped red funnel and green hull, was bound for Baltimore, in its holds cargo of cement, linseed oil, rags, wool, indigo, herring and goatskins.

It was a routine crossing despite the high seas and head winds. It was at 1:15 p.m. April 5 that a Mr. Lucas, the officer in charge, sighted a steamer with flags flying, off the Missouri's port bow.

It was the Danmark of the Thingvalla Line, dead in the water and wallowing in the sea, some 800 miles from Newfoundland.

The Danmark, under the command of Capt. C.B. Knudsen, had sailed from Copenhagen for New York on March 26, and 15 days out, a boiler room explosion had killed the vessel's chief engineer, snapped a propeller shaft and punched a hole in the ship's bottom.

Because of a heavy running sea, Knudsen had decided not to risk putting passengers and crew in lifeboats.

Summoned, Murrell went on the bridge. "I saw it was a signal of distress which the ship was flying," Murrell wrote in an account of the rescue.

"The course was at once altered, and the Missouri was steered as close as possible to the steamer," he wrote.

The Danmark's captain signaled: "I have 735 passengers on board, and that is too many lives to be lost on one vessel."

The Danmark crew was trying to stem the chill Atlantic waters that had been steadily rising in the ship's holds. It was a race they were increasingly losing and couldn't possibly win.

Now that their prayers were answered and a rescue ship had come to their side, the question was how to safely proceed.

Murrell feared an open-sea transfer in rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and opted instead for a 10-inch hawser that was dropped by the Danmark and that the Missouri picked up.

It was his plan to tow the Danmark to the nearest port, which was St. John's, Newfoundland, hundreds of miles to the west.

As the Missouri steamed through the Atlantic night with its ward on its stern, the barometer began to fall, the wind increased and the seas ran even higher.

It was April, high iceberg season on the North Atlantic.

"At the rate of speed we were going, we could not punch our way through any quantity of field ice, and we signaled to the Danmark that the course would be altered so as to reach the Azores, which I considered under the circumstances, the most available place to proceed to," wrote Murrell.

It was 8:30 the next morning when the Danmark signaled: "Am leaking badly, five feet of water in the hold."

A half-hour later, another signal told of the desperate conditions aboard the Denmark: "Am sinking, take off my people."

The hawser was cut, and at 9:30 a.m., the Danmark's chief officer came alongside to give a report. The main engine had been kept at work pumping water out of the holds but the water still topped 7 feet.

To accommodate the Danmark's passengers and crew, Murrell ordered that all cargo between decks be jettisoned from the Missouri.

The evacuation was orderly, with women and children taken off first. The first lifeboats brought 22 babies and two women, which presented Murrell with the problem of how to get the children safely aboard his ship in such rough seas. He ordered wicker baskets used for coaling to be rigged with ropes. The babies were placed in them and then raised to deck level.

Rain and fog began to complicate matters and Murrell feared losing sight of the Danmark and the lifeboats that were scurrying back and forth, as the light began to fail.

The last man who stepped off the stricken vessel and into a lifeboat reached the rescue ship shortly before sunset, when the Danmark sank from sight.

On April 10, the Missouri steamed into the Azores and all single men went ashore, leaving some 365 married men, women and children who then sailed for Philadelphia, arriving on April 22.

"There was never a jollier tar aboard a ship than Capt. Hamilton Murrell of the Missouri appeared to be today," reported The Sun.

"He was the lion of the day, indeed, and through all of the excitement and bother incident to so great a responsibility as he has had upon his shoulders for the past sixteen days, he was the same affable, big-hearted mariner, who had kind words for everybody and whose modesty never for one moment forsook him," reported the newspaper.

Murrell was feted in a dinner May 2 at the Rennert Hotel that was attended by former Maryland Gov. Pinkney Whyte and Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe, 26 days after he rescued those who were in peril on the sea, and not losing one of them.

Murrell died in 1916 in his Eutaw Place home surrounded by his wife and five children. He is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery.

For years, a painting that commemorated the dramatic rescue, "And Every Soul Was Saved" by English artist Thomas M.M. Hemy, hung in the New York office of the Atlantic Transport Line until it was purchased by Baltimore theatrical impresario and hotelier James L. Kernan.

Until 1932, the massive 9-by-15-foot painting hung in the Maryland Theater and Kernan Hotel gallery, when it went into bankruptcy and was sold. Its whereabouts today are unknown.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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