Most tales of Hurricane Hugo are of its horrors. But a heartening element of the storm was the scores of Lowcountry people who bravely withstood its fury to do their jobs.
The storm slammed ashore 25 years ago, on the night of Sept. 21-22, 1989, with a force that not many who lived it had ever seen.
But as hundreds of thousands fled or hunkered down, a hospital maintenance crew took turns wading through waist-deep rushing water to pump out a flooded generator. Coast Guard crews pulled people from the roiling waters where their boats sank. Public safety teams dodged fallen trees and debris to answer calls until it was too unsafe for them to venture into the storm.
Those are familiar stories. Here's one you might not have heard.
Two tug boat crews wrestled wave- and wind-tossed nuclear submarines back to their piers in the dark.
Capts. Rett Guerry and Barry Flaherty were among a number of tug boat personnel assigned by White Stack Towing to safeguard boats and ships at Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard, commanding the 90-foot-long Barney Turecamo and the 100-foot-long Christopher Turecamo, respectively.
Neither boat was more than a fraction of the weight of the subs that broke loose in the storm. Each tug had a single propeller and could be pushed by high winds like a sail. Here's their story, in the captains' words:
Flaherty: I could feel my heart beat pounding and we haven't even left the dock. ... When we cleared Town Creek, we saw there was a good bit of traffic headed up the Cooper River. The first few vessels headed up river looking for refuge were the shrimpers. ... Next came the tour boats, motor yachts with beautiful blond bow ornaments, and the blow boats, aka sailboats.
Everyone was cruising up the river, looking for a place to hide until this rascal blew over. Sailors waving, stereos blasting, everyone having a grand old time.
Guerry: The winds came up. The rain started. It would come in bands. We knew the storm was coming. My first mate, Mark Underwood, went to call his wife on the pay phone that was on the dock where we were tied up. It got dangerous immediately. The wind started to pick up and wouldn't let go for the next 12 hours. Part of the metal building tore off (where the phone booth was). If not for Mark being in that phone booth, it would have cut him in half. ...
We had to put our boat three-quarter speed ahead with about three-quarter left rudder to keep the boat straight up, to keep it from turning over from the sheer force of the wind. The winds got so bad it blew the searchlight and radar off the top of our boat and it was welded into the tugboat.
One of the things I noticed that I will never in my life forget was a series of what I call mini-tornados going up and down the Cooper River. It was so noticeable because at night, if you run your hand through the Cooper River, you can see phosphorous in it. It will light up. (The wind) was stirring enough phosphorous up in these mini-tornados that it truly looked like an electric light show out there. It was spectacular.
Flaherty: The sound of the wind was something similar to a train blasting down the tracks. Till it grew, it changed to something more like that of roaring jet engines screaming by, but not leaving. ... As I was monitoring ... the distress channel, I could hear the "maydays," the frantic cries for help. All the partying, happy, smiling, joyous people that were blowing their horns, waving as they passed by on their way up river ... these people were in trouble now, scared voices on the radio, pleading for help, vessels sinking, boats tied together, one going down taking another with it. People in the water ... I had to shut it off because I knew there was nothing I could do for them. There was a Coast Guard cutter that went out there and didn't lose a single person. They lost a lot of boats.
Guerry: A powerless nuclear attack submarine (The USS Narwhal) had come untied from the pier and its rudder and propeller were stuck up under the pier. It was just waggling off into the current. We headed up the river. Some of our tugboats, the civilian tugboats, had been incapacitated by Navy barges that had broken loose and were floating around. We had one boat that had a huge hole put in the side of it.
Flaherty: Over the radio we were getting reports of barges breaking loose from their moorings in the base and being driven out into the river by the 140-plus mph winds. Out of nowhere, barges were sailing in the darkness, crashing into anything in their path till they ran aground on the other side of the river. ...
Suddenly out of nowhere there she was, the Navy (tug) boat, coming down on us sideways. We were going to collide, no way around it. I just held the Christopher into the wind and the (tug) boat bounced off our strong bow rubber and was gone almost as quickly as she had appeared. Both boats took a pretty good lick.
Guerry: This was the height of the storm. There were times when you didn't have a visual frame of reference. ... You had to trust yourself that you knew where you were. ... That fluorescent glow provided a form of light. Noise that was happening on shore provided a frame of reference. Every now and then you'd pick up another light from another boat or somewhere. Barry's searchlight was invaluable to us. And then talking to each other, you knew where everybody was. God knows, a lot of luck was involved.
The people at the Navy, with supposedly the world's best anemometer, were telling us the wind speeds were 150 knots (173 mph). We had to secure the fast-attack submarine then push it back into the dock. That was an issue because with winds speeds pushing 150 mph or more, it's hard to turn a single screw boat around. I can't tell you the maneuvers I used that night to do it, but the ones we chose worked. Without damaging anything including ourselves, we turned our boat around in the slip and got our tug on the submarine, my bow pushing (perpendicularly) on the sub.
Flaherty: We eased into the vicinity ... where we estimated the sub was adrift. Warren (Tawes, first mate) spotted that big black fish coming right at us, or us at them, head-to-head, 20 feet away. I stopped the throttle for a second, the wind quickly pushed us to the port enough to let us slide sideways, landing right alongside as if it was planned. At the same moment, Capt. Rett of the Barney was calling us, requesting we keep our light on the drifting sub. We dodged the sensitive nose cone of the submarine and pushed on the side of the submarine. We held our light on the sub and the Barney on the other side.
Guerry: As we were approaching the submarine, all of a sudden all the sailors disappeared into the submarine. I put my deck hand, Steve Young, on the submarine. He put our bow line on this submarine, which means I now have control of this submarine. As the captain of the boat, theoretically then I'm in charge of this nuclear submarine.
The problem then surfaced. The submarine had received orders to submerge. I had a conversation that took some period of the time with the captain of the submarine because he wanted to submerge and I was telling him he could not do so. He agreed not to submerge until I got my man and my line off. Understand, this is about a 12-inch line. If he tried to submerge it would submerge the tug boat right along with it, so we all probably would have died. We got the line off, we got our man back onboard.
With a 150-knot tailwind, we blew out of that gap between the submarine and the pier that was sticking out and immediately turned hard left. I knew ... we were going to go farther left than we wanted to with all that wind blowing on us. We flew out of that thing, turned hard left and sure enough there was the (mooring) wall. We pulled up to it, tied up, looked at ourselves a minute and said, "whew." It was crazy. ... Our hard left turn getting us exactly where we wanted didn't result in the Christopher getting exactly where it wanted. I didn't know where they went. I thought we had lost them.
Flaherty: When it was time to leave it was go, and you had to go hard. When you committed yourself to try to make a maneuver, you committed with everything you had. I came out of the slip and I had the wind on my beam and I thought it was demons. I allowed the Christopher's bow to go too far around and the wind took the boat away from me. ... We were being driven toward Clouter Island, sideways. Warren said, 'Oh, my God.' ... We all knew what could happen if we hit bottom across the river. The bathtub shape hull of the tug would come to a sudden stop in the mud, the wind pushing on the tower would drive us over sideways and we would have to swim for our lives.
I think I pushed that big brass throttle down until it started to bend. ... She shook all around and we were praying. She broke and came up into the wind again. ... That's how we made our way over.
Guerry: Our wheelhouse was probably about 20 feet above the waterline, and we had a foot and a half or two of water in the wheelhouse. Our chief pilot was so wet that we went back to my captain's quarters to dry off, change clothes, and frankly calm down. We all had to calm down a little bit, the adrenaline was really rushing.
The Christopher, it turned out, had tied off to a barge that was sinking. Flaherty crawled onto the barge to check it out, debris flying past him.
Flaherty: Immediately after Bob tied off the head line on the barge, Warren said, "Cap, something doesn't look right." Not wanting to risk the life of my crew member and also wanting to get a firsthand view myself, I left Warren at the wheel and went below. While I tried to ease myself along the lee side of the barge, I could feel the wind of the hurricane turning the corner pushing me against the bulkhead wall of the barge. I immediately dropped to the deck. My hard hat sailed off into the howling wind as I continued toward the windward side to have a look at the barge's mooring.
Now at the corner of the barge on the windward side, the hurricane winds were blasting my face and body with dirt, glass, metal, branches, pine needles, wood, everything imaginable, even laying prone on the deck. I leaned my head over the side of the barge, winds with small debris were hitting me like I was standing in a sand-blasting machine. I took a couple of good licks by some of the larger stuff, but I could see I had bigger problems. ... The barge was not alongside at all. It was sitting on top of the dock. The side of its hull was completely crushed in, waves were washing over the dock and the super structure of the barge had been totally compromised. Waves driven by wind were freely washing into the barge's breached hull.
I scrambled on my belly till I got to the lee side and then I practically ran for the tug. I waved and shouted to Warren to back us away and headed for the wheelhouse. ... We watched, amazed as the gigantic manning barge started to tilt and roll our way. I could hear her groan as she was tearing steel off what was left of her hull against the dock while she twisted and rolled over our way. She continued to completely roll over in front of our tug and would have taken us with her had we been along side another minute.
The Christopher tied off to the pier with the Barney as the hurricane eye passed.
Flaherty: The eye was amazing, a wonder in itself. Total serenity. When I looked up at the heavens, I could clearly see all the stars above. There was not a whisper of wind, a total calm, complete peace in the middle of a hurricane. A moment of pure calm. ... We were at peace, awestruck and amazed.
Then they got another call.
Guerry: The Navy tower (was) saying there's a boomer, which is the nuclear missile submarine, that has broken loose and is getting ready to break through. ... It was getting ready to bust through the wall into this (dry) dock where a frigate and submarine were.
The second half of the storm had started. All the stuff that blew loose in the first half (of the storm) was now blowing back at you. ... You had to play dodge ball to get somewhere.
Flaherty: The submarine was jammed with her bow nose cone against the wooden pier on the south side of the slip extending toward land at a 45-degree angle where the propeller was against the caisson of the dry dock. Any movement by the (submarine) could dislodge the caisson, flood the dry dock and sink (the sub and frigate.)
Guerry: As we're looking at the situation ... a Navy lieutenant tied a rope around his waist, dove in off the pier, swam through the water and up onto this boomer, and tied a tiny little half-inch line onto this warning sign that had been pac-welded onto this submarine. And that was the only thing that was stopping the submarine from going through the wall. We got there and there was nowhere to go. You couldn't push the submarine to the dock for all the debris. We didn't know if we pushed it up against the pier, where broken beams were standing out, if we might damage the side of the hull.
But I ... put Mr. (Steve) Young on it. He was a gamer. He must have been 22 years old at the time and going to the College of Charleston. He had not developed the maturity to know that he (might be) about to lose his life that night. To him it was great fun and we couldn't have done it without him. Literally, he was standing at a 45-degree angle, trying to walk into the wind in order to get to the one cleat on that vessel that we could put a line on.
Flaherty: We were going to need to make both tugs fast to the submarine, dislodge her safely without disturbing the caisson, shift the sub out into the slip a few hundred feet and secure her there against a dock.
Guerry: We got the line on it, got it tight and we started pulling that Navy submarine away from the dock. ... We were able to tie the nuclear submarine up to this barge. We tried to get all the water out of the boat, put on some dry shoes and socks and take an hour nap. Then the Navy called us back up. We were now going to pick up the submarine that had submerged and put it back to the pier.
One of (the Navy) senior pilots (came) on my boat and said, "I hear you know where the submarine is." I said, "Well, it was blowing a little hard when he submerged and I was trying to get away from him. So I can only tell you where he was before I left."
He said, "What I need you to do is get me as close to that thing as possible but not get hit when it comes up." Sure enough, blind luck, that submarine came up and we were five feet away from him. We got him tied up nice and safe. Finally, after we made sure there were no more loose ships or barges floating around, they let us go home.
As you started going down the river, it looked like a battle zone. All the trees on Daniel Island were snapped in half. You could see automobiles on top of houses at the southern end of the shipyard. As we got into the Cooper River there was more debris, pilings, docks.
Flaherty: The sky was clearing, rays of light starting to streak out from under the horizon of beautiful green marsh grass covering the mud flats across the river. ... I was crushed by what I saw. It looked like an A-bomb went off and wiped the Navy base slick. There was nothing left. They had a lot of those metal buildings up and there were skeletal frames of the I-beams left. The sheet metal was gone.
Guerry: I will tell you it wasn't just us (out there that night.) Four of the other civilian tugs that were with us up at the Navy shipyard did their jobs. They got on the big ships that were having trouble staying at the dock and breaking away. They operated all night pushing on those ships. While we were driving around chasing the littler stuff, they were up there keeping the bigger stuff to the dock. And it was not only tugs. There were a lot of good guys out there doing their jobs that night.