From the archives: Legacy of hero strong through 112 years

By Margaretmary McCann and William Norbert

legacy of hero
Thomas H. McCann

Our relative, Thomas H. McCann of South Portland, Maine, was the sixth recipient of the Carnegie Medal and the first Mainer to be honored.  If our research is correct, the first nine awards were made on May 24, 1905, and Thomas was among them.  Three silver medals and six bronze medals were awarded.

From the Hero Fund’s records:

Thomas H. McCann, 32, draw-tender, died saving Alfonso Sekosky, 8, from drowning, Portland, Maine, June 29, 1904.  McCann jumped from a bridge, 25 feet high, into Portland Harbor and swam with the boy to a boat but was too fatigued to get into it himself.  He was drowned.

Thomas was employed as the draw-tender at the bridge, the old Portland-South Portland bridge, which spanned the Fore River.  His widow, Cora, was awarded a bronze medal and $600 toward her support.  The medal is still in the family.

Thomas was the son of Daniel E. and Annie Flanagan McCann.  As a young boy, Daniel emigrated from County Limerick to Maine with his parents around 1850, and he served in the Union Army during the Civil War.  The family lived in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland, where they raised their large brood of nine children.

In 1904, Thomas was working two jobs, first for his father’s carriage-making and sign-hanging business, Daniel E. McCann and Sons, located at 37 Preble Street in Portland, and second, as the draw-tender of the Portland-South Portland bridge.  Although we cannot be certain of the exact details surrounding Thomas’s rescue of Alfonso that day, a likely timeline can be gleaned from news accounts of the time and from the family’s oral tradition. Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper published a detailed story of the sad incident, and subsequent accounts were published in the New York Times and Chicago newspapers.

On the day of the rescue, Wednesday June 29, 1904, Thomas and his assistant, Michael Flannagan, were opening the draw to allow passage of a vessel when at about 10:15 a.m. the cry of “boy overboard” attracted their attention.  Thomas left Flannagan, quickly removed his coat, and plunged head first into the river from the end of the partly opened bridge to rescue the young boy, who was struggling in the water.  According to family tradition, Thomas failed to remove his hip-waders prior to entering the river, and this omission alone may have proved fatal, since waders fill quickly with water and become heavy weights.  The exact cause of the boy falling into the water is not clear, but it appears that he may have been fishing from the bridge and distracted by the vessel passing through the open draw.

Despite the commotion, Thomas had the presence of mind prior to entering the water to direct some of the boys who were with Alfonso to get a boat and take it to him after he reached the boy.  Thomas quickly reached the boy and a struggle often associated with panicked swimmers ensued.  Alfonso fiercely clutched Thomas about the head and tightly locked his arms about his neck.  The boy resisted all of Thomas’s efforts to free himself.  Consequently, Thomas’s head was beneath the surface of the water during much of the ordeal, which lasted several minutes.  Thomas did make some progress toward the end of the bridge pier, but the current was too strong for him to continue.

Three of the other boys, about 12 years of age, rowed a boat to the scene and helped hoist Alfonso aboard.  As Alfonso released his hold of his rescuer, Thomas apparently threw up his arms and sank instantly.  The Hero Fund’s investigator learned that Thomas’s arms “seemed to relax” and that he did not surface again.   Another boat quickly responded to the scene, but tragically it was too late.

The Eastern Argus noted that, as word of the incident spread about the peninsula, a large crowd of approximately 1,000 people gathered at the scene and remained for some time:  “The popularity of McCann was fully demonstrated by the fact that there was hardly a dry eye to be seen while the operations to recover the body were in progress.”  An initial search of the surrounding water proved fruitless.

Thomas’s father monitored the search from the shore.  Heartbroken but determined to retrieve his son’s body, he hired a local diver by the name of Nat Gordon to complete the mission.  After a search of about an hour, Gordon located Thomas’s body about 15 feet from the place where he sank.  Family history has it that the body was found with its clothing caught on a nail in a wooden piling of the bridge.  The paper noted that “[a]s the body was taken from the water, the entire crowd seemed to heave a sigh of relief, silently turned away from the place, and wended their way sorrowfully to their homes.”  His father reportedly stated at the time, “Thank God, he never proved himself a coward.”
After Thomas’s body was transported to the undertakers, Duddy and Son, they examined his right leg and hip and discovered that his muscles were severely contracted.  Officials concluded that Thomas likely had been stricken with cramps during his struggle in the cold water with Alfonso.  Thomas, who was an expert swimmer, had been employed as draw-tender for two years and during that time reportedly had saved the lives of four other boys who fell into the water.  A news account noted that he enjoyed a long record as a lifesaver and that, during his brief life, he participated in no fewer than 10 rescues.

In addition to his widow, Thomas left behind a 15-month-old daughter, Irene.  Sadly, Irene died less than a year after his passing.  His widow never really recovered from these tragedies.  Unfortunately as well, it was reported that Alfonso failed to make the best use of his second chance at life in that he turned to alcohol and became a less than productive member of society.

Thomas was laid to rest alongside his mother and grandparents in Calvary Cemetery in South Portland.  His father was interred beside him just three years later.  Although we never knew Thomas, we feel as though we do through his heroic story.  We know and celebrate Thomas H. McCann as brave, strong, and selfless, a true hero and a credit to his family and to Irish-Americans everywhere.

Margaretmary McCann, of Portland, is the niece of Thomas McCann, and William Norbert, of Brunswick, Maine, is his second cousin three times removed.

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