Voices from the Ocean Ranger disaster
One of N.L.’s most tragic stories is still being told after 35 years
“Craig was my oldest boy but the youngest on the rig, He was 19,” Patricia Ryan, mother of Craig Tilley, who died on the Ocean Ranger, says. “Only 22 families got the peace of mind that comes with a burial Even though Craig was dead, I knew where he was — I had him. The companies soon disappeared, took cover like a bunch of rats, and my frustrations boiled over. I thought, those bastards aren’t getting away with this.”
Ryan’s words come from the transcript of an interview with local author Mike Heffernan, published in his 2009 book, “Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster” (Creative Books). Heffernan spent two years collecting information about the tragedy, poring over the inquiry transcripts and interviewing people connected to it, including family members of the men who perished.
He grew up knowing as much about the disaster as another other school kid, though he had a personal connection: one of the men who died, Ron Heffernan, was his dad’s first cousin. Propelled by a love of oral history and a desire to learn more about Ron, Heffernan decided to write the book.
“I just started picking up the phone and calling people. I was terrified,” Heffernan says. “When I called the first gentleman to talk about his brother, I didn’t know what to expect, but people just opened their doors, opened their hearts, if I can use that cliché, and treated me with complete kindness and trust.
Only two of the 40-odd people Heffernan contacted turned him down. The rest were candid about the event that changed their lives, and took away their sons, husbands and brothers, including Ron’s sister, Elaine.
“I knew that if she wasn’t going to be involved, I wasn’t going to be able to do the project,” Heffernan says. “I didn’t want to call her because I knew it was still a very difficult topic for her. I wrote her a letter and I hadn’t heard from her for a long time, but she finally contacted me.”
Wearing a new pair of leather shoes, Heffernan walked to Elaine’s house. On the way, it started snowing; the first snow of the season and Heffernan figured his shoes were ruined.
“One of the most poignant moments in the book is when she says she looks out the window and the first snowfall always makes her think of him,” Heffernan says. “It was powerful.” It’s one of a few tragic events forever engraved on Newfoundlanders’ hearts: in the early hours of Feb. 15, 1982 — 35 years ago this Wednesday — while undertaking exploratory drilling 170 nautical miles east of St. John’s, the Ocean Ranger semi-submersible oil rig capsized and sank in a severe weather storm. All 84 crewmen, 56 of them Newfoundlanders, perished.
Before his book was published, Heffernan submitted a chapter to The Newfoundland Quarterly. Editor Joan Sullivan, also a playwright, published it. Once she read the full book, she saw its theatrical value immediately.
“I just could see that it could be integrated into a play,” Sullivan explains. “It’s all happening in different voices, and I chose some of them and cut it so it’s chronological.”
Sullivan’s play, “Rig— Voices from the Ocean Ranger Disaster,” has been presented in different forms four times before, selling out its first run at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre within a matter of days. After a reading at MUN, Sullivan was approached by Robert Greenwood, the university’s executive director of public engagement, who told her he had missed being aboard the Ocean Ranger by one day. Heffernan then interviewed Greenwood, and Sullivan wrote him into the script.
The play will be presented by The Rooms this week to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Ocean Ranger disaster.
Directed by Michael Worthman, the play stars Aiden Flynn, Wendi Smallwood, Steve Oates, Stephen Lush and Marquita Walsh, as well as Janet Edmonds, playing the role of Elaine for the third time.
“She’s an intelligent woman, a strong woman, independent,” Edmond says of Elaine’s voice in the play. “A single mom with three young kids and she was very, very, very close with her brother. They had an exceptionally close sibling relationship and were best friends. And she got him the job. She literally got him the job, so that guilt aspect is there. I think by the time she tells that story, she says, ‘I carried that guilt for a long time,’ so she has gotten through it somehow.”
Edmonds acknowledged there’s a line to walk when it comes to presenting the tragic tale in the voices of those who lived through it as theatre, and puts the power of the play down to the interviewees’ own words.
“You can’t be the person. The best you can do is tell their story,” she says.