Risking Their Lives to Rescue the Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter
Laurier Burnham was the Coast Guard Keeper at Wood Island Lighthouse with his wife Lily and two children from 1959-1963. On November 29th, 1960, a near tragedy occurred when his two-year-old daughter, Tammy, became seriously ill and it became necessary for her to get to the mainland for immediate medical attention. The seas were rough as a storm was approaching in the late afternoon. Burnham signaled the Coast Guard station at Biddeford Pool that he needed help. They responded sending a 30-foot boat towing a small skiff with a four-man crew to bring the little girl in. The skiff manned by two seamen, Ed Syvinski and Raymond Bill, was sent to the island boat ramp to pick up the sick child and transport her back to the main boat.
Seaman Ed Syvinski and Seaman Raymond Bill made it to the boat ramp on Wood Island where Keeper Burnham handed over his daughter. As the two young men set out for the main boat, a thick fog had rolled in. All of a sudden a large rogue wave came over and capsized the small skiff, tossing the little girl and the two seamen into the cold water. In the darkening skies and thick fog neither Keeper Burnham at the Wood Island Light Station, nor the anchored Coast Guard boat knew of what had happened to the three struggling in the chilly waters. Seaman Raymond Bill took off swimming towards the Coast Guard boat to get help. After some time in the fog, Chief Kennedy and Engineman Rouleau aboard the main craft spotted Seamen Bill with their searchlight and got him to safety.
Seaman Syvinski still hung onto little Tammy even though he sank below the waves several times. He finally made it to nearby Negro Ledge Island and held her in waist deep water trying to keep her as warm as possible while waiting for help.
An hour had gone by when Keeper Burnham got a call from Fletcher’s Neck Station, stating they found Seaman Bill, but believed Syvinski and the keeper’s daughter had drowned in the storm. Against orders to stay at his post because of the danger of the storm, Burnham set out with his peapod boat to try to find Seaman Syvinski and his ailing daughter in the fog and rough seas. He knew the area quite well and his initial hunch was to try to check nearby Negro Island where he luckily found the pair. Upon getting both in his boat, Tammy slipped into unconsciousness, and the keeper made haste to where he believed he could see a dim light from the Coast Guard boat. Chief Kennedy spotted him with his searchlight, and radioed the Fletcher’s Neck Light Station that they had the survivors.
Keeper Burnham was ordered to go back to the lighthouse, which he reluctantly obeyed, and headed out to Wood Island. In making their way back to the mainland, the Coast Guard vessel became disoriented in the heavy fog of the storm. Preston Alley, a local lobsterman who had been navigating the harbor for over 30 years, heard the calls on his 2-way radio and set out to help, deciding to risk his own life to help the little girl.
He was able to find the Coast Guard boat near an area ledge, and persuaded the reluctant crew to give the girl to him so he could get Tammy quickly to her grandparents who had been waiting to bring her to the hospital. They finally agreed, and Alley made haste for the shore as the Coast Guard boat followed. Chief Kennedy had also radioed the hospital and told his family to bring blankets to the dock. When he and Alley arrived at Biddeford Pool, Kennedy’s family members were waiting on the dock with warm blankets, along with Tammy’s grandparents. The lobsterman brought the unconscious little girl to her grandparents as they sped to Notre Dame Hospital in Biddeford, where emergency crews were waiting.
When Tammy arrived at the hospital her body temperature had plummeted to a dangerous 82 degrees. The crew worked busily all night to try to bring her body temperature up. As the night wore on, miraculously her temperature finally started to increase. Within 5 days she was released from the hospital and became known locally as the “little lighthouse child.” Thanks to the brave efforts of Seamen Ed Syvinski and Raymond Bill, Chief Kennedy, Engineman Rouleau, Keeper Burnham, and Lobsterman Preston Alley, Tammy fully recuperated and had no long lasting effects from the ordeal.
Both Seamen Ed Syvinski and Raymond Bill were suffering from exposure when they arrived at the dock, but decided not to receive medical help. Syvinski was sick for three weeks from the exposure afterwards.
Over the years, participant’s families disputed accounts of what happened that night. In 1993, the Coast Guard investigated the incident and decided to present awards to Keeper Laurier Burnham and Edward Syvinski for their extraordinary courage in rescuing the little girl. A Public Service Commendation was awarded to the widow of lobsterman Preston Alley, who had passed away in 1990, and whom the Coast Guard had determined had also been instrumental in the rescue. What is most important regarding this story is a little girl survived what could have been a tragic event, with the help of a group of dedicated individuals who risked their lives to save her.
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Exploring Wood Island Light and Grounds
The lighthouse is located on Wood Island, east of the mouth of the Saco River about a mile from the mainland. The lighthouse and grounds are operated by the Friends of Wood Island Light (FOWL). For those who would like a narrated tour of the lighthouse and grounds, the “Friends” provide daily water shuttles to Wood Island during the summer months and will guide you to the other side of the island where the lighthouse is located. The lighthouse tower and keeper’s house have been nearly totally renovated with extensive efforts by many volunteers and members of FOWL near to its original state in the early 20th century. Other special tours like local ghost hunting tours are also being offered to continue in raising funds for the restoration.
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