PHILADELPHIA — As punishing 75-mph winds roared through the masts, and 80-foot waves alternately submerged and lifted his ship into the pitch-black night, Shawn Sullivan prepared to die.
“If this is the way we’re going out,” he recalled thinking, “at least I’m going out doing something courageous.”
On Oct. 30, 1991, Sullivan and seven Coast Guard crewmates aboard the rescue ship Tamaroa were in the vortex of something monstrous and historic, what was called at the time “The Halloween Storm,” and later, “The Perfect Storm.”
The former Navy cutter already had a storied past. It won four battle stars in World War II, and of 800 U.S. ships involved in the Iwo Jima invasion, it remains the only survivor. It had been a drug-fighter and played a key role in the boatlift in Mariel, Cuba, in 1980. Now berthed in Chesapeake, Va., it is owned by a nonprofit group that has restored its Navy name, The Zuni, and is trying to raise money to make it a floating museum.
The Tam, as it was called as a Coast Guard vessel, gained national celebrity from its role in the daring rescue executed by Sullivan, now of Abington, and his shipmates 20 years ago off the Long Island coast.
They confronted an already powerful North Atlantic cyclone that had just swallowed a potent growth hormone — Hurricane Grace — and mutated into a gigantic whorl of destruction.
The tempest is most remembered for the drowning of six people aboard the swordfish boat Andrea Gail, an incident that became the centerpiece of the book and movie “The Perfect Storm.”
But that was not the sum of its impacts. It stirred up seas in almost all of the North Atlantic. It did $125 million worth of damage to the Jersey Shore, where tide heights exceeded even those of the devastating Ash Wednesday storm of March 1962. It took out three blocks of Ocean City’s boardwalk. It ripped sand off beaches from Maine to North Carolina.
After several years of relative calm, it marked a sea change in the coastal-storm climate — the first in a sequence of powerful nor’easters that would awaken the debate over whether the nation could hold the shorelines against nature.
Meteorologists still speak with awe of how a relatively harmless-looking weather system swelled into a legend.
“What a night that was,” said Jim Eberwine, who was Philadelphia’s National Weather Service marine forecaster at the time.
The creator of the phrase “perfect storm” was a weather service colleague, the late Bob Case, a Pennsylvanian working in the Boston office during the storm. In a 2000 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, he recalled using those words in a 1993 conversation with author Sebastian Junger. Thus, the title for a best-seller was born.
Case did not resent the movie makers’ crediting the phrase to a TV meteorologist, but he was put off by the way it became overused, and often misused.
By “perfect storm,” he meant that a “certain number of meteorological conditions” had to be in place, that “nature had to be in a perfect setup,” Case said.
The system began innocuously as a disturbance rippling from the Ohio Valley toward the Atlantic. It grew into a storm off the coast of Nova Scotia, deepened rapidly, and devoured Grace. Adding the hurricane’s energy was “like pouring gasoline into a fire,” Case said. “It allowed the storm to intensify very, very quickly.”
Sullivan wouldn’t argue. He watched in horror as wave heights built dramatically.
The Tam, 90 miles off the coast of Montauk, N.Y., with 79 on board, was enlisted for an unusual mission: to rescue a rescue crew.
An Air National Guard helicopter with five men aboard had been forced to splash down, and a Coast Guard helicopter was unable to fight through the storm. The Tam was the only hope.
Eight volunteers would be needed on deck for the operation. Sullivan raised his hand. “I joined the Coast Guard to save lives,” he said. “This was something I always dreamed of.”
For a while, the dream would become a nightmare. The storm was intensifying. By the time they reached the rescue site, night had fallen hard, but the darkness turned out to be blessing, since it hid the frightening wave heights from view. While the doomed helicopter had been 90 feet in the air, its instruments showed the waves climbing to within 10 feet of it.
The four surviving helicopter crew members, equipped with strobe lights, had somehow managed to stay near one another. As the Tam approached, the waves tossed the ship violently. One of the eight men on the Tam deck was struck on the head with an object. “He was unconscious in his boxer shorts,” said Sullivan.
For 20 seconds at a time, the Tam would become a submarine, then be hurled skyward, then submerge again. Each time the ship resurfaced, crew members called out one another’s names to make sure all were still on deck. They were ingesting vast quantities of seawater. They were forced to work with one hand each, using the other to brace themselves.
After laboring more than two hours, they hauled the four survivors aboard the Tam with a cargo net. They spent the next 24 hours in the storm-fomented waters looking for the missing helicopter crew member, who was never found.
The Coast Guard later awarded Sullivan and the Tam’s crew a citation for “extraordinary bravery.”
Sullivan, now a commanding warrant officer, lives in Abington Township and is assigned to the Philadelphia Coast Guard station at Washington Avenue and Columbus Boulevard.
The cutter is retired, decommissioned in 1994, and Sullivan is hoping its legacy survives.
The Zuni Maritime Foundation, the cutter’s owner, has cast a nationwide net for welders, plumbers and any volunteers to help get it in shipshape as a museum, at an as-yet-undetermined site.
Said the foundation’s Tom Robinson: “She had quite a career.”