BIDDEFORD - Late in the day on Nov. 29, 1960, Tammy Burnham, the daughter of Wood Island Lighthouse keeper Laurier Burnham became ill. She had a high fever and abdominal pain, which a family doctor suspected was appendicitis.
The events that followed the call to the Coast Guard station at Fletcher’s Neck in Biddeford Pool to evacuate Tammy to the mainland have been told and retold in various newspaper articles and in one book by Margo Alley, a Biddeford Pool resident.
But never before has rescuer Ed Syvinksi, a Coast Guard seaman, spoken about his own experiences that night, when he and Tammy Burnham were knocked out of a skiff by a rogue wave on their way from Wood Island to a larger Coast Guard boat waiting just off shore to take the child to her grandparents, who were waiting at the pool in order to get her to the hospital.
That’s all changed with a new book by Alley, whose grandfather, a lobsterman, also played a role in the dramatic events of that winter night so long ago. The new book, entitled “Rogue Wave,” includes a first-person account by Syvinksi of what he and Tammy experienced after being swept overboard into waters that registered at just 45 degrees.
Svyinksi, who now spends most of the year in Arizona, was in Maine for a recent book signing. The reason he’s now telling his own story after so long, he said, is that he became afraid time was running out.
“Many people in my generation are beginning to die and I was afraid if I didn’t do this now, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Svyinksi, 71. “Margo convinced me that this was my last chance to tell the story and it really was.
“Margo requested that I describe the incident in detail, which I’d never done before. I told it from my experience and I didn’t say anything that can’t be supported. It’s been a half-century and this story, in its full detail, has never come out.”
The book, which is broken up into three sections – the daily life of the Burnham family on Wood Island; the rescue; and the aftermath – took two years and three major edits before it was ready for publication.
Svyinksi calls the finished product “a good read. It’s smooth and understandable. I kept lots of notes and records of this incident and it’s a good thing I did.”
Svyinksi was 19 at the time he and three others in the boat crew, along with Fletcher’s Neck Chief John Kennedy, headed out to Wood Island to pick up Tammy Burnham and get her to the mainland where her grandparents were anxiously waiting to get her the care she needed.
Svyinksi recalled that the “general weather and sea conditions were deteriorating with darkness approaching” when the call for help from the Burnham family came in.
As they approached Wood Island, Kennedy ordered Svyinksi and Seaman Raymond Bill to take a skiff, which had a flat bottom and shallow sides, and get to the island to pick up Tammy. The two men were wearing foul-weather gear, but no life jackets.
After they got Tammy safely aboard, the three began the return trip to the larger Coast Guard boat. Svyinksi said by then the swells were running as high as 4 feet and maybe more. Then a larger, unexpected wave came and swamped the boat, dumping the two men and Tammy into the ocean.
Svyinksi remembers that Bill still had a hold on Tammy at that point, but that while he was trying to right the skiff, Bill somehow lost hold of her. Svyinksi was able to just grab her by the hood of her snowsuit as she floated by.
It was then that Bill decided that he would attempt to swim back to the Coast Guard boat and bring it to Tammy and Svyinksi. Not long after, another large wave came along and ripped Svyinksi’s hold from the skiff, causing it to roll and sink.
From then on, Tammy and Svyinksi floated with the current. They went under repeatedly and Svyinksi feared they would both drown. Somehow, the current pushed them toward Negro Island, where Svyinksi was finally able to make landfall and keep from getting pulled back out to sea.
That’s where Tammy’s father found the two of them, more than an hour after the skiff was swamped.
Laurier Burnham had refused to accept the notion that his daughter and Svyinksi were “lost at sea and presumed drowned,” as communicated to him by the officer of the watch at Fletcher’s Neck. He correctly figured the two could be found near Negro Island.
He was able to get them safely off the island and back to the larger Coast Guard boat, which then began its return trip to Biddeford Pool.
Although Svyinksi was not privy to the decisions being made about the boat’s course, he clearly recalls that its forward motion was stopped, abruptly several times. The boat and its crew were apparently having difficulty getting back to shore due to the dense fog and heavy swells.
While this was going on, Preston Alley – Margo Alley’s grandfather – left the pool in his lobster boat, the Amber. He located the Coast Guard boat and demanded that Kennedy hand Tammy over to him, which Kennedy initially refused to do.
The child was eventually handed over to Alley, however, who took her back to the pool with him. Svyinksi said the next day all the members of the Coast Guard crew who had gone out to retrieve the little girl were allowed to visit Tammy in the hospital.
Svyinksi said she did not have appendicitis, just a bad bout of the flu. While Tammy had been in critical condition on her arrival at the hospital, that next day she was doing much better and was released from the hospital five days later.
Svyinksi said before the Coast Guard crew went to the hospital to visit Tammy, Kennedy had already been back out on the water with a local newspaper reporter. The next day, he said, Kennedy issued a “gag order” and said no one on the crew was to speak with anyone about the rescue.
It wasn’t until 1992, when Holly Burnham, Tammy’s younger sister, began questioning why no one had been honored for the rescue of her sister, who now lives in Saco. A full investigation into the events was soon conducted.
As a result, in 1993, Svyinksi and Laurier Burnham were both presented with gold lifesaving medals by the Coast Guard, and Preston Alley, who had previously died, was posthumously given a similar civilian award.
Margo Alley has always been interested in the story, ever since learning of her grandfather’s part in it. She said he decided to set off after the Coast Guard boat after following all the twists and turns over the radio.
Her first book on the rescue was “Wood Island Lighthouse The Rescue of Tammy Burnham.” She wrote this second book with Svyinksi so that he could tell his story, Alley said.
“My goal is to always be very accurate and this book is,” she added.