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.

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