A life saver receives honor

By JOHN LEANING, Cape Cod Times (3/1/2000)

CHATHAM - It was around 1:30 on the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1997, when Harwich lobsterman Anthony Coccoro slipped on the stern of his boat and fell overboard. He was all alone in the Atlantic Ocean, two miles from shore. The water temperature was a bone-chilling 42 degrees. Without the protection of survival gear, the fisherman clung to an overturned bucket as his body grew numb in the frigid water. All he could do is watch helplessly as his boat steamed into the distance, his son onboard, unaware his father was overboard. To make matters worse, darkness was approaching, and Coccoro's time was running out, as searchers desperately scoured the ocean for a sign of the missing man.
Stuart Smith and Tom Leach
The Peter Baxter Ford Harbormaster Rescue Award, presented to Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith, left, recognizes courage and perseverance. The presenter is Harbormaster Tom Leach, a member of the Cape and Islands Harbormasters association.

Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith was the man of the moment. Somehow Smith and other rescuers he brought out in his boat found Coccoro and pulled him to safety and warmth. Last year, on Nov. 21, Smith led the rescue effort that saved two fishermen from a swamped tub trawler that hit Chatham Bar in rough seas and swamped. And on Jan. 9, he managed to rescue two more fishermen from a sinking gillnetter that hit the treacherous bar.

For those efforts, Smith was honored yesterday at the Chatham town hall by his colleagues of the Cape and Islands Harbormasters Association, who honored him as the first recipient of Peter Baxter Ford Harbormaster Rescue Award. "As most of you may or may not know, Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith has placed himself in harm's path, along with several assisting fishermen and a firefighter or two, in rescuing five fishermen in the nasty seas off the Chatham Bar three times in a little over two years," Harwich Harbormaster Tom Leach told the Chatham Board of Selectmen yesterday as he made the surprise presentation.

Leach, secretary of the association, made special note of Coccoro's rescue, against all the odds. "He had been overboard in the drink longer than a man should be able to stay alive in such cold, frigid waters off Chatham Bar," Leach said. The award is named after the late Peter Baxter Ford, a longtime Chatham harbormaster who died about two years ago. The citation recognized Smith for his "courage, perseverance and valor" in saving the fishermen and for his "resolve in keeping Chatham Harbor safe in our highest and best tradition"

Smith, who was not aware of the special award, quietly accepted a gold-framed certificate as his beaming wife, Julie, looked on from the audience. "This is very nice of everyone. It's fitting it's named after Peter. I think he'd like that," Smith said. He emphasized the importance of help from the Coast Guard, police and firemen, and fishermen who volunteered to go out with him in dangerous conditions to bring their friends back to safety. "The Coast Guard responded to all three rescues. For a variety of reasons, we were on the scene first," he said.

Smith said Coast Guard efforts to encourage fishermen to check emergency gear and conduct drills were important, yet so often overlooked by men who have become accustomed to the risks. "Fishermen do it so often, it's like driving to work. But what the Coast Guard is trying to get home is: they need time and time is usually working against them. "It could be night, cold water, an outgoing tide. They need people in survival suits and life rafts. They definitely need time."