Pea Island Lifesavers Day proclaimed by governor; two events commemorate heroic rescue

Published 8:30 am Thursday, October 21, 2021

By Joan L. Collins, Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc.

On Saturday, October 9, the Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc. (PIPSI) held two events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the daring and heroic and rescue of the schooner E.S. Newman during hurricane conditions October 11, 1896 by Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. One of the events was held that morning at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and the other was held that afternoon at Haven Creek Baptist Church in Manteo.

The cloudy, misty morning with the potential of heavy rain forecast throughout the day did not stop a well-attended crowd at the popular live program, Freedman, Surfmen, Heroes, followed by a wreath ceremony at the Keeper Etheridge’s gravesite at the Aquarium’s entrance. The pouring rain later in the day also didn’t stop the main afternoon event when the decision was made to move the program, originally planned to be outdoors at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum, indoors to Haven Creek Baptist Church just a couple of blocks away. At both events, the surprise announcement was made that Governor Roy Cooper had proclaimed October 11, 2021 as “Pea Island Lifesavers Day” in the State of North Carolina and commended its observance to all citizens.

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Dwight Meekins and Daniel Gardiner laying a wreath at the Etheridge gravesite. Courtesy Pea Island Preservation Society, Inc.

The surprise announcement generated much applause and excitement at both affairs. Both well-attended programs included two very special guests – Dwight Meekins, the grandson of the Theodore Meekins, the Pea Island surfman who first spotted the E.S. Newman, and Daniel Gardiner, the grandson of Sylvester Gardiner, the captain of the wrecked ship. Meekins and Gardiner placed a wreath at the Etheridge gravesite after the morning Aquarium program and both spoke at the afternoon program. Others who provided remarks included keynote speaker David Wright Falade, who co-authored the book Fire on the Beach: The Lost Story of Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers; Captain Matthew Baer, the USCG Commander of Sector North Carolina; and Retired Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon, who spearheaded the US Coast Guard’s Gold Life-Saving Medal posthumously awarded to Etheridge and his crew in March 1996 for the E. S. Newman rescue. Rochon also earlier said a prayer at the wreath ceremony at Keeper Etheridge’s gravesite.

The afternoon program began with the Echoes of Heritage singing a prelude of songs and Kamila Brooks, a youth descendant of the Pea Island Lifesavers, singing the National Anthem. During the program, community youth also played special roles representing Keeper Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. Captain Baer presented each a replica of the USCG Gold Lifesaving Medal. This was a poignant reminder that Keeper Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers never lived to know of or proudly wear a medal on their chests for the daring October 11, 1896 rescue the E.S. Newman.

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Pea Island Lifesavers Day Proclamation.

The governor’s proclamation made a moving day, albeit cloudy, misty and rainy throughout, that much more special. The proclamation was requested by the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, the place where Keeper Richard Etheridge and his family are buried. It is also the location where PIPSI kickstarted its popular live program, Freedmen, Surfmen, Heroes which tells the unique story of the all-black US Life-Saving Service Station using vivid imagery and historical interpretation by Board members who are also descendants of the Pea Island Lifesavers.

The governor’s proclamation is yet another important milestone in PIPSI’s mission to make the history of Keeper Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers broadly known.

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