Risking their own lives in the cold and choppy Apalachicola River, three young heroes on their way home from a camping trip saved a family from certain death in Dec. 1949.
Dickie Bloodworth, Billy Lee and Ferris Tarantino, all in their teens and students at Chapman High School, were on their way home from a squirrel hunting expedition in Tate’s Hell.
It had already been a momentous outing for the three boys. Bloodworth said they spent two nights in the swamp sleeping on the boat. Tarantino and Lee slept in the hold of their craft, which resembled an oyster boat. Bloodworth, who was a Boy Scout, slept on deck in the bow, wrapped in a sleeping bag.
The boat was moored to a tree and one night, Bloodworth felt something heavy jump on the deck. He couldn’t see in the pitch dark of the swamp and whatever had come aboard left of its own accord. Bloodworth slept fitfully for the rest of the night and, the next morning, he told his friends he believed the boat had been boarded by a bear or panther. They laughed at him until they went ashore to prepare breakfast over an open fire. There in the damp soil of the bank they found the paw prints of a panther.
As they motored towards Apalachicola on Sunday, Dec. 11, the engine of the 23-foot outboard motorboat they used for the excursion began to act up. About 600 yards from the mouth of Bay City Creek the engine shut down entirely.
The boys had been endeavoring to repair it for about 10 minutes when they noticed a bateaux coming out of the mouth of the creek. About 75 yards from the boys, the second boat stalled in the middle of the river. The water was very rough that day and the boys could see the second boat was riding low in the water and foundering. Unknown to them the sinking vessel contained Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Finley, their infant son, Mrs. Finley’s 56-year-old mother and the family dog.
In a deposition taken a few days after the accident, Bloodworth said, “Ferris said, ‘They’re sinking.’ I turned from my work on the motor and saw them in the stern and the boat was going straight down. Our gas line was disconnected with the carburetor. I ran back to the back of the boat and Billy was cranking. I held the gas line to the carburetor with my hand, so it could get gas. Just by luck, it responded; we’d been trying for 10 minutes to make it go.”
Lee and Bloodworth began throwing off their shoes and shirts preparing to dive into the water when they were close enough to offer help. Tarantino was steering the boat. About five yards from the struggling family, the boys’ boat stalled again but was drifting in the right direction. Lee and Bloodworth jumped overboard into the cold current.
Bloodworth jumped off with a rope in his hand and gave it to Mrs. Finley’s mother who was holding her own in the water. He then immediately grabbed Mrs. Finley who had now been struggling in the water for more than 10 minutes. He put her hands on the rail of his boat.
She later testified, “The boat sank and we were in the river. I know my husband took the baby. I went down and I was fighting the water and trying to stay alive but I knew I wasn’t going to. I was too tired. I was gone. I just don’t know what happened and then when I came up the boat was there and one of the boys from it put my hand on the boat. I took hold of it and rested my head.”
Bloodworth then began to search for Andrew Finley who had disappeared.
Bloodworth wrote, “I felt something underwater with my feet and I went under about six feet I guess, underneath him, coming up by him and got his collar and brought him up. I took him to where Mrs. Finley was and saw that Billy had the baby. Mrs. Finley cried out wanting to know if the baby was alright and Billy said, ‘I have it.”
Andrew Finley later said, “While I was under the water, I felt my head touch wood and I knew help had come and I let him (Billy Lee) have the baby. Then I collapsed. I just turned loose everything. When I knew anything again, Dickie had come down from under me and pushed me up and put my hand on the boat. I knew Dickie was trying to help me. I commenced fighting for my life.”
Tarantino said, “It all happened quick. It was cold and windy. I helped Billy in the boat and Dickie got in the boat by himself while me and Billy pulled Mrs. Finley’s mother up. Dickie and Billy pulled up Mrs. Finley and then Mr. Finley. I was taking the baby’s cloths off and put Dickie’s yellow shirt on him.”
Tarantino put the baby into a sleeping bag. At that point, Bloodworth noticed the family dog paddling alongside the boat and pulled it aboard.
Lee put his coat on Mrs. Finley’s mother and the husband and wife were given a blanket.
By good luck, Phillip Schoelles arrived on the scene and towed the heroes, the rescued family and both boats back to town.
On reaching Apalachicola, Schoelles took the Finley family home in his car and the boys attempted to clean and restore the engine on Finley’s bateaux.
The three Chapman students were greeted with accolades by the editor of the Times who wrote, “These boys exhibited qualities of courage, valor, quick-thinking, physical prowess and deep, sincere consideration of others. The entire community is proud of these boys and recognize them as real heroes.”
Boy Scout executives of the Suwannee River Area Council and members of the Apalachi9cola Rotary Club attempted to have Bloodworth awarded the medal for heroism from the National Court of Honor, Boy Scouts of America.
The account of the incident shown on this page appeared in “Boys Life Magazine.”
Because Lee and Tarantino were not Scouts, local supporters sought medals from the Carnegie Foundation.
Hearings were held at the Apalachicola State Bank to take testimony from those involved in the rescue.
The Times wrote, “Whether the medals will be authorized is not too important to the people of Apalachicola. The boys, they acknowledge, really need no medals to prove they are heroes.”
The three boys were honored by various groups around the county and Bloodworth recounted one incident involving the Philaco Woman’s Club. The heroes were invited to a meeting of the group and were dressed in suits and ties for the occasion. This was an unusual experience for the three and Bloodworth said he didn’t believe he owned a tie prior to the invitation and had to ask Jigs Zingarelli to tie his for him.
During the meeting the teens sat politely with cups of coffee in their laps. At some point, Tarantino’s tie fell into his coffee unnoticed by him but the other two boys sat and watched as the coffee stain wicked up the tie toward the collar on his shirt, not wanting to cause a disturbance.
In the end, Bloodworth did receive the Boy Scout award, a gold medal engraved with his name on a red ribbon. Whether or not the other boys won an award is unclear from contemporary accounts of the incidents.
Our Chasing Shadows question for this week: did Billy Lee and Ferris Tarantino receive an award from the Carnegie Foundation or any organization? If you know, please contact the Times at 653-8868 or Lois Swoboda at email@example.com.