The Ocean Ranger and Cougar helicopter tragedies
On Valentine’s Day 1982, I was in bed with the flu. At that time I was living on Merasheen Place in the west end of St. John’s. Our house was a newly constructed two-storey and we were living in a fairly exposed area as the housing area was not fully complete.
I had a restless night and woke around dawn to the sound of howling wind and snow raging outside. I can remember saying to my wife, “How does the roof stay on these houses in such vicious wind storms?”
Far from my mind that savage morning was the drama unfolding off our coast. On the Grand Banks the Ocean Ranger, the world’s mightiest drilling rig operated by Mobil Oil Canada, was being pounded by waves more than 20 metres high. At the height of the storm, the “indestructible” rig began to list, eventually capsizing. The result, all 84 men onboard — 56 of them from Newfoundland — perished. It was at the time Canada’s worst tragedy at sea since the Second World War.
At 6 a.m. I reached out and turned on our clock radio and as was a regular practice tuned in to CBC Radio’s morning show with host Peter Miller.
All hell was breaking loose at CBC as news of the tragedy had reached the airways and details (although scanty at that time) were being sent out by the rig-owners Mobil Oil Canada who had set up a media information centre in St. John’s.
Friends in peril
Suddenly the news sunk in. “Oh my God,” I said to my wife, “Johnny Pinhorn is on that rig and oh, blessed heavens, John O’Brien’s son Ken is out there on it too.”
Pinhorn was the youngest son of well-known businessman Andrew Pinhorn. The Pinhorns were friends of the family - (next-door neighbours to my father-in-law). We knew Johnny since he was a young lad.
Ken O’Brien was John O’Brien’s son. John and I worked together at CBC Television. John was a well-known film cameraman who himself died suddenly in a tragic early morning fire that raged through his summer home in Clarke’s Beach.
The following weeks were gut wrenching for the entire province. Obviously for me it was witnessing the grieving Pinhorn and O’Brien families. Working in the media I too found myself surrounded by the extensive coverage of the tragedy.
More tragedy at sea
The latest tragedy (March 12) involving the ditched Sikorsky-S-92 operated by Cougar Helicopters Inc. — killing 17 — also came as a real shocker to me.
The morning of the crash, I was part of a group of fellow Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians working on an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebration (to be held on Saturday).
Mid-morning one of the group from Newfoundland came in to the clubhouse kitchen and asked us: “Did ye hear about the helicopter crash back home?”
He said, “ a helicopter operated by Cougar crashed into the ocean on its way to the Hibernia and Sea Rose oil rigs - there were 18 on board and I believe all are lost.”
Again, my heart jumped to my throat. “ Oh My God,” I replied, “ I have a nephew who works on the Hibernia rig — my brother’s son.” I near panicked. It is hard to explain the thoughts that went through my head. I was scared to look at my phone for fear there was an urgent message from home. And, I was apprehensive before opening my e-mails, scared there was bad news waiting.
I eventually calmed down when later a phone call to my brother and his wife in St. John’s revealed their son ( my nephew) was not one of the victims. He, in fact, was already out on the rig. He works on computers and operates at the rig’s control centre.
My sister-in-law said, “ Bill, Craig phoned us immediately after they ( those on board) were informed — even before the story was released to the media.”
Crews and staff on the Hibernia and Sea Rose rigs were just about paralyzed with the news. Remember these are co-workers of a tightly knit bunch who were employed with Husky Energy Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. All of them are required to travel back and forth on similar helicopters ( like the one that went down). My nephew had already been shuttled out to the Hibernia rig a couple of days before onboard the same Sikorsky helicopter.
I can’t imagine how they could concentrate on their work that day and the following days with all the trauma ( including the location of the downed helicopter on the ocean floor) and with news releases been sent out listing names of the deceased and the miraculous story about the one survivor Robert Decker from St. John’s.
Long reaching effect
Like with the Ocean Ranger tragedy, the most recent Cougar Helicopter crash has long-reaching effects. Residents from many parts of the province are grieved and shocked again.
I know there are no simple answers and we Newfoundlanders and Labradorians all know we are a resilient people whose ancestors knew tragedy firsthand, particularly dealing with the sea. However, at this time there are no official answers and we should be cautious about what we say to family, relations and friends of the deceased.
The tragedy with all its ramifications has to play itself out. Time is the only answer. Federal Transportation Safety Board authorities and the RCMP are conducting their thorough investigations. No doubt soon there will be a lot of talk about what happened — who was at fault ( if anyone) and like the Ocean Ranger tragedy, how this could have happened.
One of the first questions to surface a day after the incident was why our first-responder ( regular) Cormorant search and rescue crews were in Nova Scotia on a training mission at the time. Normally they are stationed at 9-wing Gander. That morning Cormorant helicopters, dispatched from Nova Scotia, took one hour to reach the site.
My view on that is — no matter where the crews were located probably nothing could possibly have been done to save those workers. By the time they reached the site all 18 could already have perished I feel. It’s a miracle young Robert Decker survived. At the time of writing, he is still in critical but stable condition in the Health Science Centre.
I’ll never forget
It’s funny how one never forgets major tragedies. In my case I remember vividly where I was on Nov. 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas. I remember where I was April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. I recall where I was Aug. 31,1997 when Lady Diana was killed. I remember where I was Sept. 11, 2001 ( 9-11) when the planes crashed into the twin towers in New York. I will forever remember where I was when the Ocean Ranger sank and now I will add one more to my never-forget list — where I was when I got the news of the doomed Cougar flight 491 that crashed into the frigid waters 40 miles ( 65 kilometres) off St. John’s.
I pray this is the last entry I make to that dreaded list.
Bill Westcott writes from Florida