By 7:45 a.m. that morning, a large crowd of onlookers had gathered on East Beach and began to pull people out of the water. Many of the survivors owed their lives to the heroic efforts of men in the crowd pulling them to safety through the strong undertow. One of those men was 19-year old J. Cortland Gavitt who worked at the Larkin House as a head porter. He would become a hero.
Years after the tragedy, Gavitt wrote to his niece telling of his experience: “That morning it was terribly rough and the breakers were coming in with a roar like distant thunder. Day was just beginning to break and I was looking at the ocean when I saw what I then took to be seaweed in large bunches. After I looked again, and not far from shore I saw lots of men on rafts and what I thought were boxes among a lot of wreckage, and a large raft with a lot of people on it.”
Gavitt ran back to the Larkin House and raised the alarm then found a long rope and headed to the beach.
After receiving the alarm, retired Watch Hill lighthouse keeper and owner of the Larkin House Hotel, Captain Daniel F. Larkin, and 4 others rushed to the lighthouse where the Humane Society of Massachusetts kept a 20-foot metal lifeboat.
Larkin said: “We continued on and before we got opposite the wreck we discovered people drifting about on debris from the wreck. We could see 6 or 8 at a time. We commenced to save them, the sea running so big that we had to bail out the boat, head into the seas and trim astern to take them in. We took 17 aboard the boat, 15 men and 2 women, which was all we could possibly carry. At this time the wind had changed and was blowing strong from the west and we left some five or six more insight at the time. We could not take anymore.”
Gavitt’s letter to his niece goes on to describe the scene on the beach. “I then with a lot of other people went to the beach with ropes to the rescue of the shipwrecked people who were in a perilous position. The wind was blowing very heavy from the southeast bringing in real heavy seas that were breaking high on the beach with a great undertow, making it dangerous for people to go into the surf. The hurricane deck which floated when the ship sank came ashore first. There were 30 to 40 people on this raft. When it got among the breakers, the first breaker cracked it badly, the second one broke it a bit more but the third one smashed it all up.”
Although Gavitt couldn’t swim he tied the rope he’d brought under his arms and waded out through the surf to the struggling people. A group of men on the beach held the other end of the rope ready to pull him back through the undertow.
“The people were thrown among the wreckage making it hard and dangerous for the people to rescue them”, Gavitt recalled. “However, we got every one of them ashore alright, not one being lost. The last one I went in to save being a young man. He was an immigrant, he told me later. I got into deep water to get him by the hand. A big sea knocked us both down, but he never let go of my hand. The people on shore had all they could do to save us both from being drowned.”
By this time Gavitt was in great pain as both his shoulders were dislocated from the rope tied under his arms. A doctor from the hotel noticed him and asked what was wrong. After being told, he stepped behind Gavitt, put his knee in the middle of Gavitt’s back, grabbed both his shoulders and pulled hard. The bones went back into place.
There were still many people in the water and a shift in the wind started to blow them out to sea. An hour after the doctor had fixed his back, Gavitt and four other men commandeered a fishing boat. He describes what happened next.
“The first survivors we came to were four men afloat on one the ship’s skylights holding a youth about 18 years old. The men said he was dead but after getting him into the lifeboat it was found that he was still alive.” Gavitt continued, “The next one we came to was a young lady about 20, lying on a life raft about 2 feet out of the water. She had only a nightdress on and a life belt around her. She sang out just before we got to her and asked if she was saved. I think we all called out at the same time saying, ‘yes, you are saved.’”
“We took her onboard and laid her down in the bottom of the boat out of the wind and took off all our clothing except for our underpants and shirts to cover her up as it was very cold and she was in a bad state. We managed to keep our boat head to wind and kept bailing all the time until the cutter came to and we managed to get the people we’d picked up aboard her. The girl was given a whiskey and rolled in blankets and put to bed. The youth was taken down to the boiler room where it was warm, brought back to life again.”
The fishing boat continued to cruise around looking for survivors and picking up bodies until it began to get dark. The crew on the fishing boat rescued 15 people and recovered six bodies. The revenue cutter Moccasin arrived and collected 41 survivors and 18 dead. Captain George Harrison in the fishing smack Quilp, returning from Block Island found 7 men in a lifeboat off Watch Hill and with difficulty rescued them.
Completely exhausted Gavitt and the fishing boat crew boarded the revenue cutter Moccasin and were taken to Stonington. “We arrived at Stonington that night and took the steamer back to Watch Hill. When we arrived at Watch Hill that night we were a very tired lot and thoroughly played out as we had all worked very hard.” It was reported that when Captain Larkin and the other volunteers finally got back to the Larkin House they were greeted by cheers.
Of the over 100 people that were swept into the sea from the sinking ship approximately 48 people perished although some estimates run as high as 70. The exact number will never be known because like all steamships at the time the passenger manifest was aboard the vessel and went down with the Metis.