Former Coast Guardsman returns to Stannard Rock Lighthouse 54 years after explosion

Former Coast Guard member Walter Scobie and Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Connolly, of Coast Guard Station Marquette, prepare to lay a wreath in Lake Superior near the Stannard Rock Lighthouse, June 17, 2015. Scobie was stationed at the lighthouse in 1961 when an explosion killed a Coast Guardsman, damaged the inside and stranded him and two others for three days before being rescued. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Alan Haraf)

Former Coast Guard member Walter Scobie and Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Connolly, of Coast Guard Station Marquette, prepare to lay a wreath in Lake Superior near the Stannard Rock Lighthouse, June 17, 2015.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Senior Chief Alan Haraf)

Walter Scobie remembers June 18, 1961 when his quiet morning was shattered by an explosion that ripped through the Stannard Rock Lighthouse where he was stationed.

“My room was on the fourth deck and I was thrown out of my bunk by the explosion,” he said. I didn’t know what happened.”

The explosion took place below the main deck of the lighthouse where the generators and gasoline were stored. The force sent flames shooting up the stairwells, blew a TV and refrigerator out the galley window, and sent pieces of a door into the leg of one of the other men who was situated on the second floor.

Scobie sprung into action not knowing the severity of what had happened, and not realizing what lay ahead. It would be three days before help arrived.

This past June marked 54 years since Scobie last saw Stannard Rock Lighthouse, located about 46 miles north of Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior. He was stationed there as a 22-year-old, third class engineman, along with three other Coast Guard members.

On the eve of the anniversary of that memorable but tragic event, Scobie returned with family members to the site where the explosion left one of his shipmates dead, and himself and two others injured and stranded for three days.

Scobie’s family members had talked about returning to the lighthouse for years, but this year took on a sense of urgency.

Scobie’s son-in-law, Jack Riggs, contacted Petty Officer Christopher Connolly, executive petty officer at Coast Guard Station Marquette. He asked if the Coast Guard ever traveled out to the lighthouse to perform maintenance or just to check on it, and if so, what the chances were of civilians coming along. He went on to explain the significance of the trip.

Connolly became intrigued about the event in Coast Guard history and, after internal research and approval, offered to take the family out to the location for an historic reunion.

“The command at Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie was very supportive of the idea and gave me the green light to put a plan into motion,” Connolly said.

“We talked about traveling up to Marquette a number of times,” said Lori Riggs, Scobie’s daughter, “but never thought the trip to the lighthouse would be possible, due to the distance and conditions on Lake Superior.”

Stannard Rock Lighthouse began operation in 1882. It’s situated on a shallow reef about three-quarters of a mile in diameter, barely covered by the crystal clear water, about 23 miles off of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The reef caused many shipwrecks in the early-to-mid-1800s as navigation increased on Lake Superior.

The lighthouse stands about 78 feet tall. It’s said to be the farthest from land of all U.S. lighthouses, and because of its location, it is called the loneliest lighthouse in the world.

Scobie, now 76, arrived at Station Marquette with his wife of 56 years, Sharon, his son Walter Jr., grandson Wesley, and Lori and Jack. They traveled nearly 600 miles from Rochester, Indiana, and for Walter it would be a return to the site of an unforgettable event in his Coast Guard career. For family members, it was the chance to see first-hand the place they’d heard so much about over the years, and the place they’ve read about in newspaper articles archived in family albums.

The boat crew consisted of Connolly, Petty Officer 2nd class Charles Osborn, a mechanic, and Petty Officer 3rd class Jordan Clarke, a boatswain’s mate.

As everyone prepared to depart Coast Guard Station Marquette, the modern-day 45-foot response boat impressed Scobie. His eyes widened when he learned of all its capabilities, including its speed, its ability to right itself, and its twin engines.

The temperature was a seasonable 65 degrees as lines were brought in for the nearly two-hour trip out to Stannard Rock. Seas were calm, and skies were cloudy with a slight chance of showers. The weather around Marquette can be unpredictable, and after keeping an eye on the forecast for the past few days Connolly chose this window of opportunity for the journey.

“Planning a trip to Stannard Rock requires a window of three to five days during which the weather is monitored. Even then it is still sometimes difficult to make it out to the rock. The sea state that far offshore is generally very rough, even if winds are light,” Connolly said.

During the trip out, the three modern-day Coast Guardsmen got to know their predecessor and were intrigued by his stories of boot camp, how he got stationed in Marquette and how he ended up manning a lighthouse. The conversation soon turned to the morning of June 18, 1961.

The four-member crew that manned Stannard Rock worked three-weeks straight, then had one week off. The crews were transported out to the lighthouse by a Coast Guard buoy tender during supply runs. Once the crew was dropped off, the men were limited in what they could do–cooking, writing, playing cards, watching television, meditating, and of course their main job of keeping the light lit and maintained.

“When I joined the Coast Guard, I never imagined being stationed on the lighthouse,” recalled Scobie.  “But I kind of enjoyed the solitude.”

While three weeks may have been tough for other guys, Scobie was working six weeks straight in exchange for two weeks of leave.

“I agreed to do six weeks straight so I could get two weeks off in order to go back to Detroit to visit with my wife.”

Scobie was teamed on Stannard Rock with 18 year-old Seaman Apprentice Richard Horne of New York and 34-year-old Engineman First Class William Maxwell of Houghton, Michigan, a father of four.

A fourth Coast Guard member, Oscar Daniels, was not part of this original crew, but was sent to Stannard Rock the day before the accident to repair a generator.

Following the explosion that morning in 1961, Scobie rushed down two floors to check on the other men and found Daniels dazed with part of a door embedded in one of his legs. He carefully attended to Daniels’ injury, removed the object, and worked to get himself and Daniels out of the lighthouse.

Scobie exited the window and out onto a pipe running down the outside of the lighthouse. He then helped Daniels to exit the window and follow the pipe down to the main deck.

His attention turned to Horne.

“Where is Horne,” he asked Daniels.

“He went after the boat,” Daniels replied, referring to the 12- foot dinghy they kept at the lighthouse. The explosion tossed the small boat into the lake and now the waves were taking it away from the men.

Thinking it was their only way off the burning island, Horne jumped into the 40-degree water to try and retrieve the boat.

“Come back here,” Scobie shouted. “You’ll never catch it.”

When reality set in, Horne turned around and began to swim toward the lighthouse but soon became exhausted and started to go underwater. Scobie tossed him a life ring, but missed. Horne continued to struggle to stay afloat. Scobie tossed the life ring again. This time it hit Horne’s hand just as he was going under. Horne grabbed it and held on as Scobie pulled him back above the surface and closer to the ladder on the side of the lighthouse. Using the swells of Lake Superior to grab each rung on the ladder, Horne was soon out of the water. All three were alive.

With Horne now safely on the deck, the flames were too hot to attempt to go back inside and look for Maxwell. The three survivors looked out over the water and all around the outside of the lighthouse, but Maxwell was nowhere to be found.

Scobie, Horne and Daniels soon turned their attention to survival. Much of the inside of the building was in ruins but they were able to find a large tarp which they set up on the south side of the building to help protect them from the elements.

The explosion also knocked out their only means of communicating with the mainland. Up until that point, they made contact with Station Marquette twice a day by radio.  All they could do now was care for one another, wait for help, and try to stay warm.

As the modern-day response boat finally came up to the lonely light house, almost two hours after departing Station Marquette, Connolly throttled back the engines and the boat began slowly drifting. Stannard Rock now appeared to be a giant concrete pillar stretching skyward. Scobie and his family stepped out onto the deck of the vessel, and in a way, back in time.

“There it is. We are actually looking at Stannard Rock Lighthouse. What an experience to see the majestic lighthouse in person with my father,” said Lori Riggs.

With everyone out on deck, Scobie pointed to the fourth-floor window, saying, “That’s where I slept.  And there’s the pipe that we slid Daniels down and onto the outside deck.”

The temperature was about 20 degrees colder than when we left land. One could only imagine what it was like to brave similar elements for nearly three days.

As we floated around to a different angle, we could see the ladder that Horne used to get himself out of the freezing water and back up onto the deck, and where the three men set up their tarp to seek shelter.

Scobie noted that the fire burned for nearly three hours, but the smoke lingered for days. During the day, the men looked for food, tried to keep each other comfortable and warm, and watched for any passing ships.

“We had two bottles of ketchup and one can of beans to ration for what turned out to be three days,” he said.

At night, Scobie walked to the top of the lighthouse and sent SOS signals through the lens using a flashlight that he found.

“We were hoping a passing ship would see our signals for help. Finally, on the third day, the Coast Guard buoy tender Woodrush arrived and picked us up,” Scobie said.  “They used their smallboat to transport us out to the cutter before lifting us onto the ship and taking us back to the mainland for treatment.”

The events that took place that day are unfortunately forgotten moments in history, and to be able to watch him retell it 50 yards from the rock was awe inspiring,” said Osborne.

More stories and details during the brief stay beside the lighthouse were intertwined with moments of silence, some for reflection and others to imagine what happened years before.  Then it was time to say a final goodbye and pay respects to William Maxwell, a father of four who lost his life on that Fathers’ Day 54 years ago.

Petty Officers Connolly, Osborne and Clarke presented Scobie with a wreath and, after a tribute to Maxwell, Connolly and Scobie placed it into a calm and peaceful Lake Superior. The visit was complete. It was time to return to shore.

“The trip back out to Stannard Rock is one of the greatest days in my memory,” Scobie said. “The men representing the Coast Guard made me proud to have served.”

“It was a very calming and peaceful day,” said Scobie’s wife, Sharon. “The lighthouse is a huge monument for William Maxwell and a lasting tribute to those who survived.”

“I was overcome with excitement and anticipation to see my father’s reaction to the lighthouse he once lived on, and to hear more stories of his Coast Guard duty days,” said Lori Riggs. “I felt immense gratitude to BM1 Connolly, the crew, the Coast Guard, and my husband for making this historic lighthouse reunion possible.”

From a Coast Guard perspective, Connolly reflected on his day saying that being able to talk with Scobie about his time in the service, the similarities and differences between then and now, and having the opportunity to share his return to Stannard Rock with him was very special.

“He served our country in much the same way that so many men and women do now, with pride,” said Connolly. “Though our time in service is separated by more than 50 years, time has not hindered our ability to relate at all, and the day was one that I will never forget.”

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