More than three-quarters of a century after his death, a Sea Isle City man's name has been added to the Cape May County Fisherman's Memorial in Cape May Harbor.
"Paolo Raffa 1934" was etched onto the memorial earlier this month under the names of the six crewmen who died in the sinking of the Lady Mary scallop boat off Cape May in 2009.
Raffa died after falling off a commercial fishing boat based out of Sea Isle.
When the Fisherman's Memorial was built in 1988, organizers said they would continue searching for the names of Cape May County fishermen lost at sea. While many of the 76 names etched in granite belong to men who died after 1988, the oldest dates to 1893.
Jeff Reichle, whose company, Lund's Fisheries in Lower Township, has been involved in overseeing the monument, was contacted by Raffa's daughter-in-law, Louise Raffa, in November 2009. She was married to late Sea Isle City Mayor Dominic Raffa, a son of Italian immigrant Paolo Raffa, who was born in Reggio Calabria, in southern Italy, and left behind a widow and nine children when he died.
"My father-in-law, Paolo Raffa, was on board the commercial fishing boat Emma, out of Sea Isle City, when he fell overboard into the fishing nets and drowned on June 21, 1934. He was 51 years old," Louise Raffa wrote Reichle. "It would be a tribute to his memory that his name be added to the monument in Cape May. Our family would be eternally grateful for this honor. Please let me know when his name has been added to the memorial stone so that I may come and see it. Thank you."
Louise Raffa died May 24, 2010, while her request was still being processed. But other family members are happy to see Paolo Raffa's name listed on the monument.
"Geez, I'm thrilled to death. It's hard to believe," said Anthony Raffa, a grandson of Paolo's who lives in Sea Isle.
Anthony Raffa was born more than a decade after Paolo died. He heard Paolo had a heart attack before falling in the nets and drowning, but he wished he had listened more to the stories as a child.
"Sometimes they'd talk Italian to you and you'd run away because all you understood was English," Anthony Raffa said.
The type of fishing Raffa and other Italian families did back then is called pound-net fishing. Poles would be set into the ocean floor just offshore, and nets would be used to funnel the fish. The men would go out in boats every day to empty the nets by hand.
Pound-net fishing often was done within sight of land, but it was not without its dangers. The worst fishing calamity in Cape May County's history happened in 1921 when 11 pound-net fishermen died. The men left Anglesea in North Wildwood at dawn to tend the pound nets and never came home. The next day, bodies began washing up. Their deaths have not been explained.
Anthony Raffa remembers watching the pound boats come in to the docks on 43rd Street, an area known as Fish Alley. The engines were on the back of the boats, and crewmen would plaster fresh squid on the exhaust manifolds and sear it as a quick snack as they steamed in, he said.
Paolo Raffa was captain of a boat owned by Union Fishing Co. He left at 4 a.m. the day of his death with a five-man crew to tend nets three miles off Avalon.
Raffa was hauling in the fishing nets by hand, when suddenly he "tottered, clutched his breast, and fell over the gunwhale," a June 22, 1934, report in the Cape May County Times states. Raffa's son Bruno frantically grabbed for his father as he went overboard and into the nets, but missed. The crew quickly hauled in the nets and retrieved Raffa, trying to revive him as they steamed toward Townsends Inlet.
At the dock, Samuel Van Sant put Raffa in a car and rushed him to the office of Dr. C. W. Way.
"The men worked over the body the entire way home, but their efforts were fruitless. Dr. Way pronounced him dead from drowning," the report states.
Bruno Raffa was grief-stricken over watching his father die, the newspaper reported. Bruno was one of six sons and three daughters born to Paolo and Fortunata Raffa.
After arriving from Italy, Paolo Raffa worked in Philadelphia at a sugar refinery and a hat factory. He moved to Sea Isle in 1915 and immediately got a job on a fishing boat. He was a trustee of the Sea Isle City Italian-American Club.
The newspaper account said Raffa had never been to a doctor in his life.
Anthony Raffa said most of Paolo's children left the area. Pound fishing ended decades ago when fish became scarce in near-shore waters.
Contact Richard Degener: