It was a terrible storm. It had to be the worst in years. Captain Schultz watched through a window as huge waves battered the harbor docks. He jumped when the ship-to-shore radio across the room squawked. “Mayday, Mayday, this is the Elba Queen. We are foundering and taking on water two kilometers south of Dresden Harbor.”
The message started to repeat but then the Harbor Master hit the transmit button and responded, “This is Dresden Harbor Office, can you maintain through the storm? We can’t send help during this weather.”
“The engine room flooded and we’ve lost steam and rudder. The storm is pushing us towards the west-shore rocks. We have passengers, families, on board.”
The late afternoon was darkened by heavy cloud cover and rain, but Captain Schultz glanced towards the tug he piloted, rocking but securely moored at the dock below, and saw torrents of water washing over its gunwales. More significantly, he noticed that whiffs of black smoke still exited its twin stacks and he surmised that he and his crew would be able to get its two boilers back up to pressure quickly. “I’ll take the Rose out,” he grunted at the Harbor Master.
The captain was a gruff, grizzled old man that had piloted ships on the Elbe most of his life. Now he was the most respected tugboat pilot working the harbor. He was a hard man to work for but his crew didn’t hesitate to head out into the storm with him towards the Rose, Dresden Harbor’s old but most powerful tug. They knew the captain would get them through the storm to rescue the Elbe Queen’s passengers and crew.
The wind was howling and hurling rain in their faces but quickly they were onboard and shoveling coal into the fireboxes and preparing to release the lines. When adequate pressure was reached, Captain Schultz signaled one-quarter ahead to the firemen below to move the Rosa away from the dock and then piloted straight through the rough waters in the harbor at three-quarters speed. Since no other vessels were out he didn’t worry about the storm augmented waves they created as the tug’s massive bow tore through the raging water.
The captain steered the tugboat upstream when they reached the main river. It was at flood level and its flow added to the wind driven waves causing massive walls of water to sweep over the bow and across the deck. The forward watchman, although tethered, struggled to maintain his post and keep watch for hazards and the stricken ship. Headway was slow against the powerful river current so the captain signaled for full steam and the mighty tug began to make better progress.
All the crew were seasoned veterans of the river, but the pitching and rolling was hard to withstand. The firemen struggled to keep their footing on the shifting lower deck while feeding coal to the ravenous fires and dealing with the heat and noise. The captain kept the boat transverse to the massive swells and waves where he could but biased his piloting towards powering through on a direct path, which resulted in severe boat rolling.
Eventually the watchman yelled and signaled to the captain that they were approaching the stricken ship. They saw that it was half submerged and breaking up as it drifted out of control with the current. Captain Schultz piloted the tugboat alongside the ship but it was impossible to tie the vessels together, so they had to transfer the surviving passengers and crew through the water using ropes and life rings. They pulled a few more people from the water. It was reported that forty-four were lost.